Monday, January 11, 2016

The future of behavior medication?

We don’t actually know how behavior medications work. We know how they change the operations of cells — for example, we know facts like “this medication makes cells slower to recycle this particular chemical.” But we don’t have a good idea of how those cellular-level changes result in behavior-level changes. We don’t know how these medications make individuals feel better.

And that’s a problem, because not every individual responds to a particular behavior med in the same way. A pathologically fearful dog might have nasty side effects on one med, no response to a second, and then respond beautifully to a third. It’s hard on owners to have to try a variety of medications before finding the right one, especially as it takes a month or two to be sure that a particular medication is or isn’t working. (Oh, yeah, and the same is true for humans who use these drugs.)

If we knew how these medications worked, we might be able to figure out who they would work on without so much cumbersome trial-and-error. Imagine taking your shy dog to a veterinary behaviorist, who would do a genetic test and prescribe the right drug based on the results, to go along with behavior modification exercises.

My current work focuses on gene networks that differ in the brain between animals who are shy and aggressive and animals who are confident and friendly. I've always felt that my requests for funding have been a little hand-wavy as I have argued that surely my findings may help us understand behavioral medications better... You know, someday. Someday maybe my findings will help us design better medications, in fact. But that day seemed a really long way off.

Until I read Ed Yong's story “CRISPR’s most exciting uses have nothing to do with gene editing”. CRISPR is a fancy new gene editing technology that has everyone talking about science fiction coming to pass: being able to edit human (and animal) genes to make designer babies (and animals). Edit out the gene variants for genetic diseases before a baby is born! (But hopefully don't slide down the slippery slope to editing height, skin color, eye color, personality...)

But it turns out that CRISPR may have a more subtle use: gene regulation. Soon, scientists may be able use it to tell individual genes to turn on and off (to make more or less of their product). Rather than permanently editing genes in embryos, we could temporarily modify the output of genes in adults. Suddenly my quest to find the sets of genes affecting shyness seems less quixotic. Maybe my discoveries (do you like how I assume I’ll have discoveries? Let’s just pretend it’s a sure thing) won't have to wait for drug discovery work to be useful. Maybe we’ll be able to directly turn the volume up or down on those particular genes, directly affecting pathological shyness.

Scary? Yeah, it's not something I foresee being used therapeutically in the next few years, not until we understand the brain well enough to be able to predict side effects. But it’s really cool to imagine that some day we may have this sort of fine-tuned control over psychological diseases.

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