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January 11, 2018

Phone Interview with Dr John Gustafson, Professor at UMUC

Due to technical problems I could not get a recording of all of the interview, this transcript is
based off of sufficient notes taken during the interview. While not word for word accurate in Dr
Gustafson’s answers, it addresses all of the points made by him and a part of the interview is
taken directly from a recording.

Gustafson: I understand that you are studying behavior genetics, how might I help?

Hills: “I have a few questions that I was hoping you could address.”

Gustafson: Okay

Hills: “So the field of behavioral genetics is constantly advancing as scientists link traits to
different gene connections and discover new components. Do you believe that this will be
something that is never finished or that one day scientists may know every gene and its
roles in the human genome?”

Gustafson: I can only comment on the topic of genes in behavior. I doubt that the work will
ever be done because of the importance of an environment, even the environment in
cell affect gene influence. Even if hey are understood on a molecular level there is no
concrete answer to a gene’s effect.
Every behavior represents an interaction between behavior and experience.

Gustafson: Scientists have stopped using the term “instinct” because there is no such thing.
Personality is a construct that we have “made up” it is real but not directly
observable. We determine influence on specific traits that we have decided to look
for. Genes evolved according to the survival of phenotypes, they did not evolve
according to our standards and constructs. It is becoming clear that genes have a
strong link with things like environment.

Hills: “Following up on that, while behavior relies on both environment and genes, could some
traits more influenced by environment or more influenced by genes than others?”

Gustafson: You can measure depressive tendencies.


“In the medical field a disorder is classified with similar disorders if they all have
similar causes, but, in psychology, something like depression, or schizophrenia, or
another psychological disorders are classed together regardless of their cause and that
really complicates the process of tying genes to those disorders, and if i'm not getting
too off topic, please let me know if I am.”

Hills: “Not at all”

Gustafson: “It is possible to determine that a disorder is inherited, or largely inherited, without
knowing the specific genes that cause it. For example, there was a recent article
claiming that 52 genes have been identified as cause of schizophrenia, however those
authors of the article said that a complete list of genes that can produce schizophrenia
isn't known and it is not known how many of them must act together to produce
schizophrenia.”

Hills: “If the specific cause of schizophrenia was known might we be able to prevent it in an
individual before it manifests itself?

Gustafson: Often people inherit vulnerability to the disorder but it is not triggered in them until
they are exposed to severe stress. One would possible be able to help someone by
controlling the stress. Many scientists have claimed to have found links between
genes and disorders but it is hard to link genes to disorders but we are making
progress. There is a clear psychological pathway from genes to disorders and severe
stress is a cause. This link can be traced through inflammation. You should
research inflammation mental illness. The popular view is that the genetically
controlled immune systems inflates to stress. Stimulated microglia change synaptic
configuration of gene cells and lead to disorders.

Hills: “That is very interesting, I will definitely research that topic. Would you mind explaining
how the inflammation works? I am having a hard time understanding how and why that
occurs in the body due to stress.

Gustafson: It is very complicated. We used to think genes were only active in the fetus before
birth, now we understand that genes are active during all our lives. Glia is on the
alert whenever subjected to stresses. The immune response for stress is
inflammation. This can become chronic which can lead to autoimmune disorders
such as fibromyalgia and can migrate. Inflammation in the brain is very complex, it
causes cytopinds to be released, some of which increase inflammation, some of
which decrease inflammation. It can trigger the smallest type of glia. There are
millions of glia, it was thought that they were simply supporting cells but in fact they
clean up damage and change synaptic connections. If they are uncontrolled it can be
harmful.
Hills: “If a child not not inherit from their parents the tendency for a disorder is there still an
equal chance that they will get it based simply on environmental factors?”

Gustafson: Well, there is not the same chance, there is still a chance, disorders can skip
generations or even appear for the first time in a family. The parents may have
shown no tendencies of schizophrenia but may pass some of the genetic causes of
the disorder to their child and if the child gets some from both of his parents there is
a chance he will react to high stress such as his parents divorce or the death of a
loved one and become schizophrenic. There is no sole contributor, part is genes,
part is environment.

Hills: “Okay thank you. I understand that genes that determine personality are very complex,
even so, might the genes that cause personality disorders or behaviors show the dominant
or recessive tendencies of simple traits?”

Gustafson: Psychological traits are not mendelian, there are no dominant or recessive
psychological traits because they are not simple. Personality traits are constructs so
we can’t expect them to show the properties of single gene traits.

Hills: “I see, that’s understandable. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, this
was very helpful.

Gustafson: “You are welcome, feel free to call or email any time, good luck with your research.”

Hills: “Thank you, I will keep in touch. It was great talking to you.”