Experiences and Gene Expression – the biological basis

After the point of near-despair because I didn’t seem to understand a thing, I have now gotten to a point where I think I got the gist of it. This is a post about how experiences shape the way our genes work, to underline that while our genetic makeup might be hardwired, which parts of it get activated is often due to what kind of experiences we make.

The premise of that is that as humans, at the moment we get conveived our genetic makeup is determinated by the individual mix of chromosomes from our mother’s and father’s DNA. This individual mix contains lots of possibilities there, laid out by what our genetic makeup contains, but by that point they are still possibilities. Plenty of them. With some genes there is little choice, such as what our hair or eye color will be. Others traits of ours, however, are the result of a mix of genes that are less predetermined. Which get realized and which don’t largely depends on what kind of experiences we make. Both inside the mother’s womb as we grow, as outside of it, during our childhood (as well as our adult life).

So much for the theory. Here is how it works on a biological basis (the way I came to understand it).


The most important thing to know is that the brain, which is part of the nervous system, communicates internally with electric signals (inside of nerve cells) as well as chemical signals (to get information from one nerve cell to the next). So the brain’s language consists of those two parts.


So far so good. What happens now when we experience things? The kind of experience that we have (like sensual experience, be it through touch, seeing things, hearing things, feeling things, anything) gets translated into electrical impulses. Those come in through lots of little “arms” that nerve cells have. Those incoming impulses stimulate the nerve cell.


What happens when the nerve cell gets stimulated in a certain way? The stimulation releases messenger proteins. Messenger proteins are proteins that carry information to the nucleus of the cell. The nucleus is where our genetic makeup is. Every nerve cell (as well as most other cells in the body) is equipped with all of our genetic information, which consists of 46 chromosomes. The important part here is that, once stimulated, the activated messenger proteins in turn stimulate activator proteins inside the nucleus, where all of our genetic information is.


Now let’s look at the chromosomes, because that’s important to be able to understand what happens next.

Each of the 46 chromosomes consists of a double helix of so-called nucleotides, little thingies that basically work like a zipper. Each nucleotide has a counterpart that it can lock with, which is why it ends up being a double helix. The double helix is curled up really tightly into the shape of an X, which is why Chromosomes are X-shaped. (Except for the one male Y chromosome. That one mises a leg. But all the other chromosomes are X shaped.)

Anyway, on this double helix – if we unspiraled it to look – we’d be able to see one gene sequence after the other. Really, really, really many of them on each single chromosome. And each of those gene sequences starts with a promotor. Keep that in mind, because it’s important.


Okay, so you kept in mind that each of the many genes on the looooooooong DNA helix starts with a promotor. That’s important because depending on what kind of activator protein has been released by the incoming information, this protein matches with a specific promotor.


Once the activator protein has successfully matched with a promotor, the promotor triggers a slicing protein that temporarily slices (unzips) the double helix that makes up this gene sequence. That is important  because messenger RNA pieces can match with the now-open strand of DNA. By matching up to the DNA they make a copy of the information that this gene carries. Once they are done matching, they have joined to a little string of messenger RNA and let go of the DNA to float off. The job is done and the double-helix zips close again.


So now there is a messenger RNA copy of what the gene says. This copy is able to pass from the nucleus into the cell body where it seeks out the so-called ribosome. The ribosome is like a building site for proteins, which reads the info of the messenger RNA. Depending on the information that the messenger RNA carries, the ribosome joins together the building parts that for example neurotransmitter proteins consist of. Which proteins get built therefore depends on which gene was activated and what information was on that gene.


Everyone familiar with mental health issues will surely know how valuable neurotransmitters are. A lack of neurotransmitters like serotonine, for example, can cause stuff like depression. Which is why psych drugs come and add artificial neurotransmitters (or agents that inhibit the ability of the neurotransmitters to get resorbed into the nerve cells after they have been released to communicate information to the next nerve cell).

BUT, and that’s the real big thing all this is about – while our genes determine which neurotransmitters are built, for example, it is our experiences that determine which genes get activated. So the way I understand it, it is kind of impossible to keep nature and nurture apart, because one influences the other. Especially during pregnancy, infancy and childhood, there are apparently many windows of opportunity during which the kind of experiences that a person makes determine WHICH of the many possible genes that are there will be the ones that get activated.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but it’s actually a big one. Everything we are is ultimately a result of which genes get or got activated when. But this is not entirely predetermined. Experiences have a large influence on which of the many possible genes get activated. Also, there is a thing called neuroplasticity, which basically means that throughout life the brain is able to change and develop. Only because one thing is activated (or inactive) right now, it doesn’t mean it has to be forever. If there are enough experiences, our brain can change with those experiences and genes that were activated can get deactivated and vice versa. It probably takes longer for experiences to achieve that later in life than it took during the window of opportunity, but the way I understand it, the basic fact that what part of our genetic makeup is activated is open to influence by what kind of experiences we make remains.


So what does that mean?  To me it means a lot of things.

It means that only because my brain is working in a certain way now, it can change the way it works if enough experiences that are different to the ones that caused it to work that way come in.

It means that statements such as “you will have to take that psych drug for the rest of your life” are highly questionable to my mind, because there actually IS the possibility that given we make enough suitable experiences, our brain can learn to activate different genes again that will be able to bring the brain back into its neurochemical balance, for example.

And it means that what happens to children during the pregnancy, infancy and childhood is SO, SO, SO VERY IMPORTANT, because that’s when the windows of opportunity regarding which parts of their genetic makeup will become active are open. I really believe that THIS is where successful mental health care should start. Making sure that children don’t experience stuff that turns all the wrong genes on to mess up their lives later!

But this last implication will be part two of what I want to post about “Experiences and Gene Expression”. For today, this is all. The next post will specifically be about “Childhood Experiences and Gene Expression”. Stay tuned. 🙂


Where the information comes from:

BEAR, M.; PARADISO, M.; CONNORS, B.W. (2006): Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

PERRY, B.D. (2002): Childhood Experiences and the Expression of Genetic Potential. in: Brain and Mind 3: 79-100. Kluwer Academic Publishers.


62 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kat
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 18:08:05

    I found this link on another blog, and it seems to fit really well with this topic, so here is the link, hope its useful!


  2. Trackback: Dissociative Recoil « Who needs normal?!
  3. snowinthenights
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 18:30:35

    That’s very interesting, Lola. Thank you very much for this explanation! 🙂

  4. gypsy116
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 22:39:47

    Have you read The emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley. Its a self help book about all of this, and it gives exercises aimed at changing some patterns of thinking and behavior by neuroplasticity. I havent done any of the exercises yet, but I plan on trying them at some point.

    • Lola
      Jan 20, 2013 @ 08:04:12

      No, I haven’t read that book. It sounds interesting, though, especially if there are excercises. I’ll check it out. Thank you for the suggestion! 🙂

  5. Bourbon
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 00:46:01

    Fab! This really threw me back to my A level biology days – if only I had you then to explain all that with the diagrams! You made it very clear. Just today my T said how because I am young my brain is still “flexible” enough to change. Very hope inspiring all of this. Thanks for sharing 🙂 xx

    • Lola
      Jan 20, 2013 @ 08:07:46

      Thanks, and you’re welcome! 🙂 I need the diagrams in order to understand it. I suck so bad with big chunks of text, but I get it nicely when I can see it in proper little pictures. And I find it very hope inspiring, too, that our brain is able to re-structure itself so much because what we experience has an ongoing impact on what parts of our genetic potential get switched on. Makes me hopeful because it means I’m not stuck forever with the suvival mode brain that I got during my childhood.

  6. prideinmadness
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 16:40:14

    Thanks for the pictures!!!!

    I can prove the point that how your brain is now is not how it could be later. When I was 16 I was severely depressed. Due to the history of depression in the female’s of my family the psychiatrist told me I have chronic depression and would be on medication for the rest of my life (I’m sure we’ve all heard this). I was on medication for a little over a year before I decided I was done with it and have not be on medication since that moment about 5 years ago. I also no longer have chronic depression or any mood disorder and in comparison to how I was as a teen I am DRASTICALLY different.

    I didn’t realize the importance of child/teen development in who adults become until recently. There may be some things that I will struggle at learning because I didn’t learn them when I was younger and my brain less set in it’s ways but if people who have experienced paralysis or have damaged part of their brain in an accident, if they can relearn to walk, talk, grab things etc then I can figure out my stuff to. The brain is amazing!!

    • Lola
      Jan 20, 2013 @ 20:05:17

      You’re welcome to the pictures! My only way of understanding those things! 🙂

      I think the significance of childhood and teen development gets sadly underestimated a LOT of the time. I’ve seen so often how people wait and wait and wait before something gets done about situations that everyone knows are really crappy, and all this time during which there is no help for the families, children’s brains just get shaped and shaped and shaped in all those unhealthy ways that are going to kick them in the ass so much later in life. But yeah, the good news despite this is that even when it’s harder later in life, it’s still possible to re-shape the way the brain works.

      Your example with your severe depression that is no longer there despite the fact that you discontinued your allegedly ‘necessary for the rest of your life’ meds is totally proof of that. It’s the same for me. I was on this big crappy cocktail of psych meds and all it did was mess up my ability to relate to world around me. (Ironically many psych drugs actually inhibit the brain’s ability to form meaningful, healthy and secure attachments to other people. Go figure. I don’t have the source for that at hand, but I’m very certain I saw an article on that it in one of my mom’s psychiatric journals.) So we tapered all the drugs off and the first 4-6 months were NO FUN at all, but thereafter I actually improved a lot and felt a lot better than I had while I had been on the drugs. Defeating the purpose much?! I guess drugs can be fine in certain circumstances, but I’m really glad I’m off them and I’d rather my brain learns how to actually BE better, than getting messed with by drugs. It’s definitely possible!

      • prideinmadness
        Jan 21, 2013 @ 01:14:17

        It sounds like we’ve had similar drug experiences. I’m sure they do benefit some people (and I know some of those people) but they just didn’t work for me. I can imagine that coming off your cocktail was difficult. I just stopped talking mine and was lucky that I only experienced a foggy mind and shakes for a little bit.

        I am aware of a lot of research that shows that psychiatric medication can greatly mess up your brain and your overall perception and interaction with the world. I think some of that can also come down to us because many people still see medications as “miracle cures” which they are not. You still need to to put in the work and learn coping techniques and overcome other obstacles.

        • Lola
          Jan 21, 2013 @ 12:24:21

          Very lucky that you could just stop taking your drug and were mostly fine. It doesn’t work with all of them, with some it’s even dangerous. Like benzos. Those are way nasty. Anyway, yeah, even the meds that help people are far from being a miracle cure, that’s only too true. Also hardly long term solutions, at least if you ask me.

          • prideinmadness
            Jan 21, 2013 @ 13:39:44

            My last psychiatrist (who I saw in August) wouldn’t put me on benzos because of the addictive and withdrawal qualities of them. I’m glad that was done because I do have a history of overdosing “for fun”.

            If meds are a long term solution they should be a last resort also. After my first psychiatrist appointment at 16 I was given a prescription. Now, I had been in therapy for 2 years and it wasn’t working but still….16 year olds aren’t even supposed to be on those drugs.

            • Lola
              Jan 21, 2013 @ 17:06:59

              I’m glad for you, that’s a sensible psychiatrist there! What a rarity. I’ve seen GP’s describe benzos like candy without ever even mentioning that they’re highly addictive. I ended up on them, and having lived in a place where everyone had ready access to psych drugs, it took only a couple of months until I was taking more than I was prescribed. I’m glad I’m benzo-free now, because they really come back to kick you in the ass later and are a bitch to withdraw from once you’re addicted.

              I agree that meds should be a last resort, never the first way of action and surely never ever the only one. Yeah, and giving underage people drugs, doctors have astoundingly little inhibitions about doing that, even when the leaflet says the drug should only be described to people 18 and up.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 22, 2013 @ 03:42:39

              In a book I read recently called Out of the Blue the author (it’s a memoir) was taking Ativan like it was candy! She was all concerned about antidepressants but didn’t appear to have an understanding of what her anti-anxiety meds were doing! it was very frustrating….

              I’m glad you’re off of them 🙂

            • Lola
              Jan 22, 2013 @ 07:05:34

              Haha, well, she probably considered her Ativan to be the “good” drug, especially if she was taking it like candy, i.e. already addicted. I can kind of relate, because while I was popping benzos, I did not really realize they were doing me harm either (after all I felt like shit if I DIDN’t take them, so they must be a good drug, making me better, right?! 😉 ). I’m real glad I’m off them, too. My biggest nightmare is ending up hospitalized for some reason and some idiot doctor ordering I get a benzodiazepine against my will.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 22, 2013 @ 17:03:07

              I have the same fear. My partner is under strict instructions to never take me to the hospital for mental health purposes.

            • Lola
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 07:11:23

              That’s good that your partner is not to take you to the hospital for mental health purposes! I’m sure you can imagine how much I freaked when my former therapist recommended my mom to have me taken to the hospital every time I act out at home (like, self-harm, screaming, behaving inappropriately. etc.) as an educational measure or something. SO glad my mom never bought into his crap.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 15:49:59

              That would have made me freak out more!

              My parents wanted to take away my door, go through my journal, not let me use knives at dinner and keep me inside and my therapist was like “ummm that’s the fastest way to keep her depressed and make her worse!” I’m glad they saw reason even though they were desperate to make sure I was ok.

            • Lola
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:10:49

              I’m really glad for you that they saw reason, too, and very good that your therapist recognized how nothing of that was going to help! I guess I can see how desperate parents would try lots of things, and it’s definitely better than parents who just don’t care. Even so, no knives at dinner… what did they think you were going to do with a knive during dinner?

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:17:23

              Ha ha that’s exactly my point! My self harm has actually been very interesting because I’ll only use certain items. Knives was never one of them but my parents didn’t understand that.

              My parents now come to me asking for resources because they don’t like hearing that other parents are taking their young children to the hospital psych ward first.

            • Lola
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:28:05

              I suppose you’d have to be rather desperate to use a dinner knife – DURING dinner, no less, LOL. Very good that your parents now come to you first, instead of taking you anywhere or snatching up some of the weirder bits of information that are out there. I’m rather glad that all the rules that we have at my home are sensible ones, too, and that the hospital is never even mentioned as being a solution for anything. (Unless I really, really lost it and became dangerous or something maybe. But I’ve never been dangerous or violent towards others (other than breaking stuff, occasionally). So I’m not too worried about that. )

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:31:07

              A hospital shouldn’t be a threat! It should be a place we trust and feel comfortable going to.

            • Lola
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:38:16

              That’s true!. Only I don’t know many hospitals that actually ARE places where I’d feel comfortable going. Ironic much?

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:58:27

              Ya, it’s pretty bad. I wouldn’t go. I never went to hospitals much but when I did it was for bad things.

            • Lola
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 17:11:37

              Same here. I spent quite a lot of time in hospitals altogether, but save the occasional nurse who was truly friendly, neither stay was what I’d call a particularly good experience, and I always – ALWAYS – left the hospital high as a kite on yet a new drug cocktail eventually. Not cool.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 23, 2013 @ 17:21:36

              LOL I can only imagine that drugs you walked out on. The last time I was in the hospital was when I was 16 for my attempt. I slept through the whole thing so I guess it wasn’t that bad :p (yes, I make jokes about my suicide attempt, it helps me not feel so blah about it)

            • Lola
              Jan 24, 2013 @ 06:10:09

              Yeah, I was in the hospital for (admittedly halfhearted) suicide attempts, too. Once to get away from being at the group home for Christmas, once to just show my shrink I was serious when I said I was feeling like crap and the third time around I was just bored and hated the girl I had to share a room with. Aren’t that rotten reasons? LOL I kind of joke about it, too, because if I didn’t, I’d end up feeling kind of sad and embarrassed. Good that you haven’t been in the hospital since your attempt! I’m real glad that the last time I had to go was almost a yeah and a half ago, it was only to get stitches, but nothing that involved a stay or some shrink trying to muck about in my head.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 24, 2013 @ 16:00:16

              I had a whole thing typed and it disappeared…..ugh!!!!!

              As I was saying, it’s great that the last time you were in a hospital it was a year and a half ago!! YAY!!! Mine would have been about 6 or so years ago.

              i understand your reasons! I once self harmed because a girl in my class thought I wouldn’t do it. That was the day I got caught also. I’ve been meaning to write about that because it was super messed up! Thanks for the reminder!

            • Lola
              Jan 24, 2013 @ 21:05:28

              Oh no, I hate it when that happens and stuff I type disappeared! 😦 But 6 years ago since your hospital stay is real good!! Oh and cool if the self harm talking was a reminder. I already found your post and read. Meant to write something, too, but didn’t have enough time to think properly, so I’ll have to get back to it later. 🙂

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 25, 2013 @ 03:33:19

              No worries! It was some messed up stuff…..

            • Lola
              Jan 25, 2013 @ 11:07:53

              Some of your messed up stuff reminded me directly of my messed up stuff. Carving stuff into themselves sure was popular with teenagers back then. Triggered memories for me. Wrote about them on your page. 🙂

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 25, 2013 @ 14:12:59

              The things kids find cool these days…I’ll never understand some of it.

            • Lola
              Jan 25, 2013 @ 14:44:00

              Me neither. But I guess those that just do it for the coolness factor aren’t those that really have struggle stopping once they find the next thing cool. Those that start because it had an air of coolness about it and discover how it has “positive” (subjectively, at that moment) side effects, that’s another story. :-/

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 26, 2013 @ 03:36:51

              I guess there would be the “fitting in” aspect. Just like kids who try drugs with their friends. Some end up addicted.

            • Lola
              Jan 26, 2013 @ 07:58:14

              That’s true. I must be a little weird in this regard, because I never really considered the fitting in thing beyond an initial thought (social anxiety makes me want to stay inconspicious and not draw attention) and just went straight for the pathological part. LOL.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 05:41:52

              I did it to try and show something that I would endure pain for them (I liked them SO much….). It didn’t work. Years later that guy would like me and I would laugh in his face. Mean but he deserved it a little.

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 05:42:02

              Show someone*

            • Lola
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 07:42:11

              Ha! Yes, maybe mean to laugh, and hurting yourself to show someone how much you liked them was probably not the most healthy idea (but I may say that, because it sounds exactly like the kind of thing I might get up to as well, given the right circumstance. LOL), but I’d have laughed, too. Glad you got your little bit of satisfaction there in the end. 🙂

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 15:35:40

              Well, in all the movies people do silly things for love! Look at Romeo and Juliet! They knew each other for what? 4 days? And they died to be with each other!

            • Lola
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 15:51:10

              That’s true. Although with Romeo and Juliet, wasn’t it more of a clever plan gone wrong that ended up with both of them dead?

            • prideinmadness
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 15:54:34

              Yes, so they’re just horrible planners :p

            • Lola
              Jan 27, 2013 @ 15:56:32

              LOL 😀

  7. nobodysreadingme
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 10:36:44

    This was easier to understand than a lot of the textbooks I used at University, and a lot of stuff I had to read in the course of various jobs working in healthcare related professions.
    Neat job, Lola

    • Lola
      Jan 21, 2013 @ 12:26:56

      Thank you, Duncan! 🙂 I’m glad it was understandable. Took me a while to get it, but then it wasn’t all that complicated anymore.

      • nobodysreadingme
        Jan 21, 2013 @ 12:31:47

        It was very well written as a precis of the mechanics.
        I’m not sure the mechanics matter too much to be honest. You’d have to be a complete moron not to see that experiences influence how we beahve, how we react, how we feel.
        It really doesn’t take a genius to work that one out
        Hope the dossociative blank has at least begun to abate.

  8. AmendaT (@AmendaT)
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 17:02:05

    Haha you just make biology into pictures 😀 Ah, if only those teachers can do so as well. That would save a lot of hard memorizing because I didn’t have a gist of what the teacher’s droning on at the time. 😉

    I once read that the mind is easier to mold during the period from childhood to adolescence. After that it’s slower for it to change because during the time, the brain is constantly strengthening itself, making it more durable and less malleable.

    • AmendaT (@AmendaT)
      Jan 21, 2013 @ 17:07:34

      It would seem to me that our brain started out as simple copper wires with it’s natural shape and are then molded by the environment. At the same time as it’s being molded, it’s enforced with, let’s say concrete. So, in the end you’ll have a strong protection for the wires but to change them once more you’ll have to tear down the concrete first 🙂 <— I'm babbling again^^

    • Lola
      Jan 21, 2013 @ 17:11:58

      I need biology pictures in order to wrap my brain around the stuff. 🙂 And yeah, it makes sense for the brain to be easier to mold in the time during which it’s confronted with all those new experiences that happen when growing up, and less so in adults, who (if all went well until then) are using their brains only in certain ways, specific to what they are doing for a living or to the things that suit their personality. (Or so.) But I think it’s good that even adult brains can still mold, even when it’s slower.

  9. Soul Survivor
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 01:32:47

    Great post! I love that you highlight the importance of environment and experiential input. Like I always say, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”

    • Lola
      Feb 14, 2013 @ 09:15:57

      Thank you and yes, I think the environment is really, really important! I also love that saying! So true! 🙂

  10. Heather
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 13:48:00

    Smart stuff! Thank you for writing!

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