Epigenetics: Why our DNA is not our destiny

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1. SUMMARY

Why do we all respond differently to environmental factors such as stress and what are the factors that make some of us vulnerable and others resilient to stress?

My research focuses on understanding how our genes and environment affect our health.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our genes (DNA) play a key role in our health however they do not act in isolation. Environmental factors such as drinking, smoking, stress, diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors can influence our DNA via the process of “epigenetics”, a new field of research which is increasingly of interest. Epi means “on top” hence epigenetics indicates a chemical modification of the DNA which influences gene function, with effects on health and well-being.

Epigenetics is dynamic and modifiable via changes to our environment, thus explaining why our DNA is not our destiny.

2. BENEFIT

Mental health is a key research priority worldwide. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing has estimated that about 45% of Australians (over 11 million people) will experience a mental disorder at some time in their life. Mental health disorders have an enormous physical and emotional impact on people and tremendous financial costs for societies. Understanding the biological mechanisms of mental health disorders is crucial to improving both the psychological and medical therapies for people at particularly high risk for exposure to trauma and stress-related disorders.

While over 70% of Queenslanders experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, why some people develop mental health issues and others do not, is an important question. There are subgroups within the population who are more likely to experience traumatic events as part of their occupation such as emergency service workers, police officers, and military personnel. Exposure to trauma can have cascading negative consequences on the health of a person hence an understanding of post-trauma responses to facilitate prevention and treatment of mental health problems in high-risk groups is a health priority.

My research focuses on the health of Queensland veterans and paramedic students and demonstrates that our DNA (genes) interacts with our environment and it is this interaction that drives our health trajectories in a particular direction. By measuring the influence of environmental factors such as stress on our DNA via the process of epigenetics, my research has identified new genes and biological pathways as well as environmental factors that can influence health and well-being. This advanced knowledge will enable better diagnosis and timely, personalised treatment of mental health disorders.

I am currently working on a project that aims to understand how Queensland paramedic students respond to stressful on-field experiences and which factors (genes, social support, sense of belonging) predict whether they develop mental health disorders or remain healthy. In addition to genes, my research will identify environmental factors influencing positive change, providing important information for maintenance and promotion of an employee’s psychological wellbeing. My research has implications for psychoeducation as organizations can incorporate these research findings by educating people on which psychological factors have positive/negative impact on health and developing strategies to promote these - e.g. sense of belonging which can be improved at an organization and community level.

The main take home message - we cannot change our DNA code, but we can alter our environment by changing our lifestyle factors and driving our health in a particular direction. Therefore, our DNA is not our destiny!

3. ENGAGEMENT

I am very passionate about promoting mental health research and knowledge to scientific and non-scientific communities.

As part of my research focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I have actively communicated my research widely. My research at QUT was featured on Channel 7 news QLD and international media, where I described our discovery of novel genes implicated in PTSD in Australian veterans. We also organized a thank-you event for Australian veterans who participated in the research. At the event, I presented the latest research findings to the veteran participants and their families and was involved in follow-up discussions with them. This event was highly appreciated by the audience and many veterans expressed an interest in being included and updated about further mental health research. As an invited speaker at Brisbane’s StandTall4PTSD, an international forum aimed at transition and recovery of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, I presented our latest genomics research in mental health to service personnel and families.

I was invited to the 30th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment, where I presented two half-day workshops to nurses, practitioners, caregivers and social service workers about the latest genomics research in the field of mental health. Impressed by my communication skills and ability to explain science to a lay audience at those workshops, I was invited to give a keynote and a workshop on epigenetics and mental health at the Oslo Paediatric Forensic Pathology & Clinical Forensic Medicine in Norway, to police officers, coroners, judges and forensic specialists.

A regular invited speaker at the Queensland Asperger’s Partners support group, I present research to families and have organized workshops on mental health to help them understand the role of genes and environmental factors in health and well-being. I am a member and volunteer at Brisbane Swish (blind table-tennis) Club to engage individuals with visual impairments and/or mental health issues in a sporting activity and provide community support.

As part of the Queensland Brain Institute’s Australian Brain Bee Challenge, I engaged with high school students via interactive workshops to get them interested in genetics of the brain and organized fortnightly Student and Postdoctoral Association Meetings encouraging informal scientific discussions between students and staff.

During Child Protection Week 2018, I was an invited panelist for Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope at USC, Caboolture. I discussed research related to the biological underpinnings of trauma and stress and explained epigenetic processes involved in stress. The audience was diverse and included members of Parliament, police officers, university students and staff and the general public.

On International Mental Health Day (10th October 2020), I have organized a public lecture on positive mental health to inform the public about mental health research and pathways to treatment and recovery, as part of the QLD mental health week.

I am dedicated to advance my research and continue to be a leading advocate and mentor in mental health, strengthening Queensland’s capacity and expertise in STEM and make a difference.

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I am a senior research fellow at QUT working at the interface of psychiatry, genomics and statistics with a focus on understanding the biological mechanisms of mental health.

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