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Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate
As part of a strategy to determine how best to integrate research priorities to include an increased focus on the impact on health of interactions among social, behavioral, and genetic factors, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, in conjunction with the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, requested that the Institute of Medicine undertake a study to examine the state of the science on gene-environment interactions that affect human health, with a focus on the social environment.1 The goal of the study was to identify approaches and strategies to strengthen the integration of social, behavioral, and genetic research and to consider the relevant training and infrastructure needs. More specifically, NIH requested the following:
Review the state of the science on the interactions between the social environment and genetics that affect human health.
Develop case studies that will demonstrate how the interactions of the social environment and genetics affect health outcomes; illustrate the methodological issues involved in measuring the interactions; elucidate the research gaps; point to key areas necessary for integrating social, behavioral, and genetic research; and suggest mechanisms for overcoming barriers.
Identify gaps in the knowledge and barriers that exist to integrating social, behavioral, and genetic research in this area.
Recommend specific short- and long-term priorities for social and behavioral research on gene-social environment interactions; identify mechanisms that can be used to encourage interdisciplinary research in this area.
Assess workforce, resource, and infrastructure needs and make actionable recommendations on overcoming barriers and developing mechanisms to accelerate progress.
Chapter 2 of this report explores the impact of the social and cultural environment on health, examining what we know about the influences of these factors on health, and identifying the limitations of current research. Genetic factors and their impact on health are examined in Chapter 3, which focuses on what is known or theorized about the direct link between genes and health and what still must be explored to understand the environmental interactions and relative roles among genes that contribute to health and illness. The impact of behavioral factors on health is explored in Chapter 4.
For purposes of the study, sponsors clarified that the term social environment refers to the relations among people as individuals and in societies and not environmental conditions such as global warming and toxic waste, even if they result from human activities.