Scientific papers tend to be loaded with statistics and jargon, so it is always a delightful surprise to stumble on a nugget of poetry in an otherwise technical report. So it was with a 2005 paper in the journal Development and Psychopathology, drily entitled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” which looked at kids’ susceptibility to their family environment. The authors of the research paper, human development specialists Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona and W. Thomas Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley, borrowed a Swedish idiom to name a startling new concept in genetics and child development: orkidebarn.
Orkidebarn means “orchid child,” and it stands in contrast to maskrosbarn, or “dandelion child.” As Ellis and Boyce explained in their paper, dandelion children seem to have the capacity to survive—even thrive—in whatever circumstances they encounter. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children, in contrast, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children promptly wither—but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but flourish. In the authors’ poetic language, an orchid child becomes “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”
Inside the small world of scientists who study genetics and child development, the notion of the orchid child was stunning. The idea of resilient children was hardly new, nor was the related idea that some kids are especially vulnerable to the stresses of their world. What was novel was the idea that some of the vulnerable, highly reactive children—the orchid children—had the capacity for both withering and thriving. They appeared to be extremely sensitive to home and family life, for better or worse. Is it possible, scientists wondered, that genes underlie this double-edged childhood sensitivity?
Ellis and Boyce’s paper launched a search both for those genes and for the risk pathways that might lead to bad outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse and mental illness. Most of the work initially focused on the genes that behavioral geneticists call the “usual suspects”—and it paid off. Studies soon showed that genes linked to particular enzymes or brain chemical receptors, if combined with family stress or maltreatment, can lead to a slew of behavioral problems or mood disorders. These links have now been verified again and again, and scientists are searching for additional genes that might play a role in this exquisite childhood sensitivity.
But where to look? If one is looking for genes that might be linked to unhappy lives, the genetics of heavy drinking is a place to start. That was the reasoning of behavioral geneticist Danielle M. Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University, who, with 13 other scientists from around the world, has been exploring a gene called CHRM2. CHRM2 has already been implicated in alcohol dependence, which is in the same group of disruptive behaviors as childhood conduct disorders and antisocial behavior. What’s more, the gene codes for a chemical receptor involved in many brain functions, such as learning and memory, so the gene might also be involved in behavioral disorders. Dick and her colleagues recently decided to test the idea.
The team of researchers took DNA samples from a group of more than 400 boys and girls who have been part of a larger child development study since before kindergarten and analyzed variations in their CHRM2 gene. These kids did not have behavioral problems at the start; they were a representative sample from communities in three U.S. cities. The youngsters have been studied every year since kindergarten, and they were around age 17 at the time of this new study. The scientists collected information on the teenagers’ misbehavior—delinquency, aggression, drug abuse, and so on—from both the mothers and the kids themselves. They also asked the teens how much their parents knew about their lives—such as their whereabouts, who they hung out with, what they did with their time, and how they spent their money. They wanted to get a general idea of how closely these kids were monitored by their parents in their daily comings and goings as a way of measuring parental nurturing, indifference or neglect.