Pathways Counseling Center

NASHVILLE, TN — During the last week in March, Pathways Counseling Center’s Executive Director, Aaron Baumgartner, and its Clinical Director, Elaine Kiene (who has been named Interim Director following Mr. Baumgartner’s decision to depart this spring) presented during the largest conference of the year for behavioral health professionals. Organized by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the multi-day conference aims to elevate emerging research and highlight the success of behavioral health professionals in their field.

“It’s called, ‘Words Matter: The Power of Nurturing Relationships,” Mr. Baumgartner says when discussing the research that was presented. “This will be a poster session at the national conference for behavioral health. We were one of, I believe, 700 submissions, and they selected 75.”

“Our Clinical Director, Elaine Kiene, she had the idea. We collaborated on it…It’s pretty exciting. It deals with research that’s showing relationships affect us at a genetic level. Not our code, but the way our code manifests. So, the difference between genotype and phenotype.”

“Genotype is fixed, phenotype is not. In darwinian ideas, you got lucky or unlucky, because it was all based on your genetic code. In epigenetics, which is what this is about, the environment has an influence. Nurturing relationships are being studied. They’ve been shown to have an effect, not just on the people being nurtured, but on the generations that come after. They pass those traits to their children, who then pass them to their children.”

“In the nature, nurture debate,” he continues, “You could say that nurture is winning. Because your code is stuck. But, nurturing environments can, for instance, insulate you from disease like some cancers, heart disease, lung disease.”

Basically, relationships matter, is what Mr. Baumgartner is saying. Casually speaking, most people would agree that this is both true and self-evident. What’s new in this regard are peer-reviewed studies establishing a link between a nurturing environment and changes in our genetic code that impact how observable characteristics and personality traits manifest and are passed down to future generations.

“It matters with depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety,” Mr. Baumgartner continues, “And, these are genetic changes. This isn’t just, ‘How do you feel,’ about something. It’s a change on the genetic level. And, I think more people need to be talking about it.”

“I mean, you don’t treat your kid well just so that they have an advantage over the neighbor’s kid. Hopefully, you treat them well because you love them. But, now we’re seeing it matters even more.”

So, providing a healthy, nurturing environment to a young person, lowers their risk of heart disease later in life? “And, certain cancers,” confirms Mr. Baumgartner.

Tragically, the reverse also seems to be true. Cancer is the development of abnormal cells - ones that do not operate as intended. They divide uncontrollably and have the ability to infiltrate and destroy normal body tissue. This emerging research suggests that a difficult or abusive environment can create that initial abnormality, or, at least, the conditions which cause for it to manifest. And, once it does, that trait is passed down to future generations.

“When you talk about it, it kind of makes sense,” says Mr. Baumgartner. “If you think about it, why wouldn’t it. And now, [researchers] are seeing it.”

“But, here’s the promise of it,” he continues, “Nurturing relationships are important. Key moments, and the earlier the better, can actually reverse the trend.”

“That’s one of the studies they did with rats. They looked at two different rat mothers, and looked at how they dealt with their pups (baby rats are called pups). One mother was very attentive and licked their pups, and the inattentive moms didn’t lick their pups. Well, not genetically, but phenotypically, [they pups] were different.”

“The licked pups had more stress receptors that could return them to a state of calm after being excited. This was a measurable change. The ones that were ignored, they didn’t have that. They stayed excited longer - heart rate up, blood pressure up, and for longer.”

“Then, they put the ignored pups with the attentive mom. It reversed the trend. They now had more stress receptors. And, they could pass that trait on to their young as well.”