Are DNA Changes the Link Between Poverty and Mental Illness?


Researchers at Duke University who studied 183 adolescents for three years found that increased depression associated with poverty may be mediated by epigenetic changes in DNA. The researchers conclude: “These initial results suggest a specibiological mechanism through which adversity contributes to altered brain function, which in turn moderates the emergence of general liability as individual risk for mental illness. If replicated, this prospective pathway may represent a novel target biomarker for intervention and prevention among high-risk individuals.

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New studies reveal that poverty may may lead to changes in a children's DNA structure, increasing the risk for depression. (Creative Commons)
New studies reveal that poverty may lead to changes in children’s DNA structure, increasing the risk for depression. (Creative Commons)
JR Swartz, J.R.; Hariri, A.R; Williamson, D.E.; An epigenetic mechanism links socioeconomic status to changes in depression-related brain function in high-risk adolescents. Molecular Psychiatry, (2016), 1 6
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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. Another case of making the simple complicated. I never saw anything in the article hinting that said changes had any relationship to the diets poor people have. No doubt some form of drug treatment is going to come from this study- expensive drug treatment that only the government can afford to pay. The treatment won’t work, of course, because the patients will remain on their deficient diets, which will give political conservatives the chance to rant and rave. Even the fundamentalists will turn into eugenicist Darwinians.

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  2. Culture of poverty

    Early proponents of this theory argued that the poor are not simply lacking resources, but also acquire a poverty-perpetuating value system. According to anthropologist Oscar Lewis, “The subculture [of the poor] develops mechanisms that tend to perpetuate it, especially because of what happens to the worldview, aspirations, and character of the children who grow up in it”

    [ Lets get lots of stupid tattoos then complain about difficulty finding job ]

    Among scholars, sociologists in the field, and government policy makers, the debate as to whether poverty stems from social, political, and economic conditions or from entrenched behaviors on the part of the poor themselves, continues.

    But just in case it is “Bad DNA” lets spend millions and billions chasing that instead of on poverty itself.

    “this prospective pathway may represent a novel target biomarker for intervention and prevention among high-risk individuals”

    GIVE ME A BREAK !!!!

    Why is this nonsense even on MIA , what is this site controlled opposition ?

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  3. “high-risk individuals”

    We can always expect good things from people that use THAT phrase !

    “A judge has ordered 22 students at Bryan Highschool in Texas to carry GPS tracking devices in the name of preventing truancy, another example of how schools are now youth internment centers – preparatory camps for brainwashing kids to accept the prison planet.

    “Bryan High students who skip school will soon be tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” reports KBTX.

    “It’s called the Attendance Improvement Management Program or AIM, and it has been used across Texas and the United States.”

    Students who skip class are now forced to attend “truancy court” and be lectured by a judge before being mandated to carry a GPS tracking device.”

    “high-risk individuals”

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      • The way I read this is no DNA sample will be needed to test for “high risk” status, all that will be needed is your W2. They want to drug up all those who don’t care to worship a fraudulent, and now worthless, thanks to our fiscally irresponcible “too big to fail” bankers, paper monetary system. EVIL, is the correct term.

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    • Who’ll be the first to sneak his GPS into the cab of daddy’s 18-wheeler the day Dad get’s up from the breakfast table to make that r.un to Seattle. Then, Sonny/Daughter is camped at his/her school desk as the interstate chase is on.

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    • I thought our court systems were overwhelmed and unable to handle most of it’s work load.

      We should all know (as popular misconception tells us) that any child not prepared to assimilate in the school system is trouble in the making. Maybe, just possible it’s the school system failing the child?

      Oh the irony of living in a country that feels compelled to “educate” everyone about everything even if by force.

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      • “Maybe, just possible it’s the school system failing the child?”

        The sorry excuse for a public education system in this country is why homeschooling has grown exponentially. People are waking up. It used to be that homeschooling was heavily associated with conservatives and extremely religious. Now, I know people from all walks of life, all faiths, all income levels, all family types across the political spectrum who are refusing to send their children to be institutionalized in schools that more resemble prisons than educational settings.

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  4. Are you freakin’ kidding me? Here they have PROOF that poverty increases the rate of depression, but instead of advocating for fighting to reduce poverty, we’re going to modify the brains of those so affected so they find poverty more amenable and tolerable in the future. THESE PEOPLE ARE TOTALLY IRRATIONAL!!!!!

    —- Steve

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  5. We shouldn’t forget brain plasticity. Practices like mindfulness meditation bring about healthy epigenetic changes (numerous studies support this). Mindfulness practices would be a better approach to treat these issues (in addition to addressing social issues), rather than the trial and error drug approaches.

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  6. I think the DNA link is just bad science. There might be deprivation connections attached to “poverty”, I don’t know. But I’ve lived in the UK for many years and I’ve never worked for anyone that’s had much of an education.

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    • Well, it’s kinda like saying that torturing someone for months or years creates “epigenetic changes in their brain.” I would think it does! But does this suggest the torture victim’s brain is flawed, or that the torturers are evil and should be stopped? This should be a call for alleviating poverty, not for drugging its victims!

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      • Or maybe just seeing which DNA types are most prone to being damaged by torture, and avoiding it with those individuals (except of course as a last resort). Or which people are more genetically predisposed towards reacting to, say, waterboarding in a more negative way than to sleep deprivation, and adjusting the torture according to their biomarkers.

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  7. This really isn’t anything new because many deprivation studies have been done. The effects of scarcity on humans is not a riddle unless you’re a faux “science” like psychiatry.

    This is eerily psychiatry seeking it’s next victim for it’s profit and that of pharma. And governments the world over turn a blind eye so one has to be curious about their ulterior motives.

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  8. I think there is hope here. I think it is likley that drug and ECT prescribing psychiatrists, right wing politicians, racists and violent men all have epigenetic changes that result in cruelty and that this might be amenable to drug treatment.

    Lets hope so.

    What gets looked into first in terms of epigenetics and drug treatment does seem to show some bias by the researchers though.

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  9. You know how this works, don’t you? These researchers are trying to connect “mental illness” with genetics, they would never try to connect “poverty” with genetics. That would be bad form. Epigenenics still represents geneticists trying to get around the fact that all is not determined by genetics. Connect poverty with genes, and you have eugenics. Connect “mental illness” with genes, and you have nugenics. Dance around other contributing factors, and you have epigenetics.

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