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TV documentary series shows value of genomics

Friday 27 May 2016

TV documentary series shows value of genomics to understand human behaviour and health

A four-part documentary series, ‘Why Am I?’, produced by Razor Films and screening on TV1 from Tuesday 31 May at 9.30pm (and also available on TVNZ OnDemand from 23rd May), highlights the findings from the Dunedin Study of 1037 people born there in 1972.

Each study member has been exhaustively interviewed, and tested every 2-6 years since then. The findings, some of which seemed surprising at the time, have been verified by other studies and are now regarded as applying universally to humans everywhere, not just Dunedinites or New Zealanders. A phenomenal 1500 academic papers have been published to date.

Risk of adverse life outcomes are predictable at a very young age given certain combinations of genetic susceptibility and circumstance. Professor Richie Poulton, leader of the research for the last 17 years, is science adviser to the Ministry of Social Development, and so in an ideal position to advise on opportunities for interventions.

Spoiler alert: Here are some examples of key findings:

• The experiences of the child can accurately predict future health, wealth and happiness, for instance, a high-quality early childhood education can be a predictor of positive outcomes in later life

• Evidence of self-control as a child is a predictor of positive outcomes later in life

• Your personality type as a child can affect your health as an adult

• There is an elevated risk of psychosis (e.g. schizophrenia) associated with early and regular use of cannabis

• Your early experiences in life affect the pace of ageing and age-related disease

• It is possible to detect an indication of schizophrenia simply by looking at the size of blood vessels in the back of the eye

• Succeeding and growing out of childhood socioeconomic disadvantage by adulthood does not undo the damage caused by early adversity

• Mental health disorder is greatly under-reported suggesting that most of us will at some point in life suffer from an episode

• Young suicide attempters had by mid-life poor outcomes indicating overall that these young people needed additional help post their initial appearance at A&E

In the past decade, the Dunedin Study has taken the lead internationally in modelling how nature (our genes) interacts with nurture (our life experiences) to help predict why people behave the way they do. In perhaps the best known of these nature–nurture interplay studies, the Dunedin Study was able to show why certain people succumb to depression in the face of life stress, whereas others do not. This finding, along with several others, was voted to be the second most important scientific breakthrough in the world—in any branch of science—in 2003.

The documentary series has already sold to 20 territories representing over 60 countries and won a Silver medal at the New York Film and TV awards. Congratulations to Professor Richie Poulton, the research team, the research funders, Razor Films, and all involved in the documentary production.

New Zealanders and overseas audiences will be fascinated by the profound scientific insights this outstanding series gives us on what makes us who we are, what determines our life course and what government policy options might be considered to ensure that New Zealand remains a great place to live.

The Dunedin Longitudinal Study successfully combines a long-term relationship with participants to understand their life course circumstance and intersects this information with cutting edge technologies including use of genomic information. The study continues to be relevant to us. As the study members enter middle age there is every prospect of a better understanding of life style-associated chronic disease and the increasing burden that this represents to our health system and to that of many other nations around the world.

ENDS

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