'Some people are biologically more resilient to stress than others'

March 24, 2006

Avshalom Caspi, winner of the Wolfson Research Merit Award, will use the money for his research into stress

Moving to the UK a decade ago paid off handsomely for Avshalom Caspi, of the Institute of Psychiatry, at King's College London, this week.

The American geneticist is one of 18 academics based in the UK to receive a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.

"I moved to England ten years ago from the US. Receiving this award from the Royal Society confirms that this has been a terrific move for the research that I do," he said. "I've benefited hugely from my collaboration with colleagues in the UK."

Professor Caspi will use the award, which amounts to about £40,000 a year for five years, to carry out research into genetics and stress. "Our goal is to better understand why some people are vulnerable to stress whereas others do not succumb to the ill effects of exposure to a stressful life," he said. "Part of the answer may lie in genetic differences between people. Some people are biologically more resilient than others. We are trying to identify the stretches of DNA that contribute to resilience."

The research builds on his team's findings published in the journal Science in 2003. They showed that differences in the serotonin transporter gene contributed to whether or not people became depressed after experiencing stressful life events.

"Clearly, more than one gene is involved and we are trying to identify the multiple genes involved in the stress response," Professor Caspi said.

Family life and work life have changed hugely since the 1970s, he said.

"There is some evidence that depression, as well as children's conduct problems, have been on a slight rise over the past few decades. Our genetic endowment hasn't changed, which raises the possibility that environmental stressors have increased."

Professor Caspi's previous research covered antisocial behaviour in children and adolescents.

"In our previous research, we have studied the influence of childhood maltreatment on children's antisocial behaviour. Maltreatment is a profound stressor that exacts a biological and psychological toll on children," he said.

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