WEDNESDAY, Feb. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Children who carry a variant of a so-called "resilience gene" get along much better with their troubled parents -- those who have substance abuse, mental health or criminal problems -- than those without the gene, a new study suggests.
Assessing 226 children aged 9 to 17, researchers at Duke University Medical Center said the findings could explain genetically why some children in problematic families manage to maintain enjoyable relationships with their parents while others are blighted by the experience.
The scientists tested the premise that opioids -- naturally occurring "feel-good" brain chemicals -- help moderate social interactions in humans. Youngsters with the variant of the mu-opioid gene receptor were more influenced by the opioids than typical children, prodding them to create better parent-child relationships despite strife, lead author William Copeland said.
"Part of the reason we find relationships so positive and reinforcing is there are endogenous opioids released that affect that," said Copeland, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. "People who have that variant experience more of that reward."
When these children are in a negative home environment, "there's almost a withdrawal effect -- so they do what they can to elicit positive interactions from their parents," Copeland said. "It's like the brain is saying, 'I used to feel this very positive state, now I'm not experiencing that anymore and I'd like to get back to that.'"
The study is reported in the Feb. 16 online issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
The mu-opioid receptor gene, known as OPRM1, has previously been associated with social behaviors in mice and rhesus monkeys. In Copeland's study, participants underwent DNA tests and answered questions about their enjoyment of parent-child activities, a
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