The following essay will define the terms ‘epigenetics’, ‘sensing pathways’ and ‘stress pathways’ and also explain the role they each play in brain development. Epigenetics can be defined as the effect of environmental factors on genes (Palkhivala 2010, p. 5). We are all born with a set of genes which act as a blueprint for development. It is the environmental factors that we experience which alter how, where, when and even if genes are expressed (McCain Mustard & Shanker 2007, p. 20). The study of epigenetics has revealed that our DNA is not our destiny; nurture affects nature (University of California Television 2011). Our genes can be turned on or off dependent on environmental factors, without actually altering our DNA or genetic code (McCain Mustard & Shanker 2007, p. 30). These alterations can be passed on to other generations, with our descendents not only inheriting our genes, but the way they were expressed (McVittie 2008). There are many environmental factors which influence the way our genetic code is read, or which switches are turned on or off (McCain Mustard and Shanker 2007, p. 30). The experiences we have pre and post-natally with nutrition, teratogens (including stress), family and members of the community interact with each person’s genetic potential, influencing not only long term brain function but also our physical and mental health (Rutter 2012; Tremblay 2010, p. 1).
The brain is a use-dependent organ which responds to patterned, regular experiences; the more a neural network is activated, the more that part of the brain will change (Ludy-Dobson & Perry 2010, p. 27). Early brain development is particularly vulnerable to the environment be it positive or negative, impacting favourably or not on the processes of neurodevelopment (Perry 2002). The role epigenetics plays in brain development can be exemplified through the lives of identical twins. Identical twins have the same DNA but will encounter different experiences causing...
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