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Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate
Research Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) undertake a study to examine the state of the science on gene-environment interactions that affect human health, with a focus on the social environment.1 The study was to identify approaches and strategies to strengthen the integration of social, behavioral, and genetic research and to consider the relevant training and infrastructure needs. More specifically, the study was to:
Review the state of the science on the interactions between the social environment and genetics that affect human health.
Develop case studies that will demonstrate how the interactions of the social environment and genetics affect health outcomes; illustrate the methodological issues involved in measuring the interactions; elucidate the research gaps; point to key areas necessary for integrating social, behavioral, and genetic research; and suggest mechanisms for overcoming barriers.
Identify gaps in the knowledge and barriers that exist to integrating social, behavioral, and genetic research in this area.
Recommend specific short- and long-term priorities for social and behavioral research on gene-social environment interactions; identify mechanisms that can be used to encourage interdisciplinary research in this area.
Assess workforce, resource, and infrastructure needs and make actionable recommendations on overcoming barriers and developing mechanisms to accelerate progress.
In response to the NIH request, IOM established the Committee on Assessing Interactions Among Social, Behavioral, and Genetic Factors in Health. (See Appendix A for a discussion of committee methodology and Appendix G for biographical sketches of committee members.)
Assessing the impact on health of interactions among social, behavioral, and genetic factors is an emerging and complex field. Much remains to be learned about how these factors interact to impact health, including the most basic concept of defining interaction and how it can be characterized. Because there is a need for greater etiological understanding in order to identify future clinical research or develop effective interventions aimed at improving health outcomes, the committee has focused its efforts and this report on etiological research.
Of primary importance to the work of the committee was the recogni-
For purposes of the study, sponsors clarified that the term social environment refers to the relations among people as individuals and in societies and not to environmental conditions such as global warming and toxic waste even if they result from human activities.