Re-Enacting Stress in the Lab. On Environmental Epigenetics, Social Adversity and the Molecularisation of Mental Health

During the last two decades, we can observe a change in how the life sciences conceptualise life: no longer mainly based on an unchangeable genome, but increasingly as affected by the way we live. Environmental epigenetics is an emerging research approach within this perspective and proposes that human bodies and minds are malleable, able to adapt to socio-material environments, among them toxins, nutrition, and stressful experiences. These adaptions, researchers suggest, take place via molecular processes, altering the way our genes are transcribed and therefore the way how our bodies and health develop. While environmental epigenetics offers important novel insights for understanding human life as a biosocial phenomenon, it also extends the biological gaze from the laboratory towards suitable objects of study out in the real world – an extension that possibly implies social and political consequences for individual and community live, as well as for scientific research practices.

This thesis therefore studies how a psychiatric research institute uses approaches from environmental epigenetics to better understand the causes for and development of mental health conditions. Within epigenetic research in psychiatry, stressful experiences are described as a crucial “epigenetic environment” which gives rise to research strategies attempting to re-enact stress in the laboratory setting. In my thesis, I provide in-depth insights into these everyday research practices based on ethnographic fieldwork, qualitative interviews, and literature analysis. I specifically investigate re-enactments of stress in three different experimental arrangements: cell models, animal models, and research with human material. Given this context, I argue that these different experimental arrangements enable equally different epigenetic accounts of mental health with diverse social implications.

In addition to the analysis of how researchers operate with environment/stress in their experiments, the work also looks at the environment of these research practices and the biological laboratory. Given this perspective, I demonstrate a divergence between the scientists’ ideal imaginations about conducting neat stress research and the actual research conditions. That is to say, that environment in epigenetics not only matters as a stimulus in stress experiments, but also as a real-world phenomenon that influences research practices, such as a noisy construction site, that might have effects on behavioural experiments with mice.

Given the central hypothesis of environmental epigenetic research – namely that environmental experiences are reflected in our biology, even down to the cell nucleus – my work provides important insights into how epigenetic perspectives are not only integrated into psychiatric research, but also how environmental epigenetics itself might change biological research. In other words, this thesis shows how epigenetics holds the potential to change the epistemology of the life sciences and our social science understanding of the biological laboratory.

Georgia Samaras
Phone: +49(89) 289 29220
Augustenstr. 46, 80333 München

Project leader(s):
Georgia Samaras


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