This is a story of nature and nurture.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Waisman Center have shown one way in which human genetics and chronic stress interact to shape health and well-being later in life.

According to the study, published recently April 13 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, individuals who both have specific variations of a particular gene called fragile X mental retardation 1, or FMR1, and experience higher levels of stress throughout their adulthood face poorer health and more physical and cognitive challenges when older.

“In this era of precision medicine, it’s vital that we understand why some people may have more health symptoms or functional limitations later in life than others,” says Marsha Mailick, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education, Waisman Center investigator and lead author of the study.

Waisman Center 5/30/14 (Photo @ Andy Manis)

Marsha Mailick

The FMR1 gene contains varying numbers of a DNA pattern called a CGG triplet repeat. The letters refer to nucleotides, which form the building blocks of DNA. In humans, the most common number of CGG repeats in this gene is 30. Repeat numbers higher than 200 lead to fragile X syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes intellectual disability and behavioral, physical and learning challenges.

The researchers looked at CGG repeat numbers in more than 5,500 people drawn from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a long-term study funded by the National Institutes of Health. They represented a random sample of men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. All of them were parents and they averaged 71 years of age.

A subset of these parents had adult children with developmental or mental health disabilities; the…

Mayra Rodriguez

Mayra Rodriguez

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