updated 7/11/2012 8:17:46 AM ET 2012-07-11T12:17:46

Whether or not a woman is a good mother is at least partly controlled by genetics, according to a new paper that identifies a key responsible gene, AVPR1A, and in particular one of its alleles, called RS3.

The findings, published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, strengthen the growing body of evidence supporting that genetics can affect parenting skills.

“Based on previous studies and our current study, it is safe to say that some parental behaviors, such as sensitivity, supportiveness and responsiveness are, in part, genetically influenced,” co-author Ariel Knafo told Discovery News.

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“The R3 allele that we linked in the current study to lower levels of maternal gentle guidance (i.e. use of reasoning, polite requests, positive comments, or suggestions) and structuring (i.e. preventing distractions, setting goals, and demonstrating and explaining certain actions or materials to the child) during a play interaction, was previously linked by us to preschoolers’ lower altruistic behavior and generosity,” added Knafo, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Knafo and colleagues Reut Avinun and Richard Ebstein made the determinations after studying 135 mothers interacting with their 3.5-year-old twins. As the kids played with toys, like colorful play dough and modeling tools, the researchers rated maternal behaviors.

The study included twins to overrule a possible association with the youngsters’ own genetics. Children, on average, share 50 percent of their alleles with their parents. A child who does not carry the AVPR1A RS3 allele could, for example, “experience more warmth than the aggressive child,” Knafo said. This study, however, took that into account, keeping the focus on how the allele affected mothers.

Out of the study group, 35 percent of the mothers were carriers of the allele, which turns out to be fairly common among humans. This allele is also associated with autism, a mental condition characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships. While most research so far has focused on moms, Knafo says it’s likely that the AVPR1A gene also influences paternal behavior.

Many more people than previously suspected may therefore suffer from mental and related behavioral problems as a result of their genetics.

“It is possible that such common alleles/variants, like the RS3 allele in question, which are somehow involved in autism, will be associated with autistic-like traits such as being less communicative, more susceptible to anxiety and stress, and more self-oriented/introverted,” Knafo said. “All of these behaviors are common, and in some theories, autism is considered to be the extreme of various spectrums, such as social and communication skills.”

People with an inherited tendency toward bad parenting are also more likely to suffer from the autistic-like traits. The good news, however, is that environmental factors, along with other genes influencing human traits and behavior, can help to cancel out some of the ill effects of the RS3 allele.

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“The influence of most genes is not set in stone, and similarly to the effect of therapy or anti-anxiety pills on anxiety, mothers who will be interested in changing their parenting style should be able to do so, especially as the research in the field, which is currently in its infancy, progresses,” Knafo explained. “There are many parent training programs, some of which with substantial success.”

One other bit of good news is that if women work to improve their mothering skills, the good care can override the negative impact of certain genes in their babies, according to Cathi Propper, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Infancy is an important time for developing behavioral and biological processes,” Propper said. “Although these processes will continue to change over time, parenting can have important positive effects even when children have inherited a genetic vulnerability to problematic behaviors.”

Genetic predisposition for bad parenting may make moms and dads work harder, but their efforts can then help their children, who will likely enjoy better lives and produce a mentally healthier next generation too.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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