Center Seminar Series – Karmel Choi

Psychological Resilience: What Can Genomic Approaches Teach Us?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020, 1:00-1:50pm

Karmel Choi, PhD, is a Clinical and Research Fellow in the Psychiatric & Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research focuses on the interplay of genetic and environmental factors that influence trauma and resilience across the life course, leveraging methods from statistical genetics, data science, and developmental epidemiology.

Seminar Summary:

Dr. Choi began her talk by discussing existing definitions of psychological resilience. She addressed that in the field of research, resilience may be considered a capacity, a process, or an outcome (Choi, Stein, et al., 2019). Research from Nishimi et al. (under review), demonstrated that resilience as a personality trait (capacity), resilience as the absence of a disorder and the presence of positive mental health, and resilience as the difference between observed vs. expected symptoms (outcome), were not highly correlated with one another. Instead of discarding these definitions, Dr. Choi emphasized the importance of being aware of which definition you utilize, as these definitions often impact how we learn from our research.

What genome-wide variation is associated with individual differences in resilience?

Next, Dr. Choi discussed the importance of defining resilience at the genetic level. In a study by Stein, Choi, et al. (2019), a series of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) of self-assessed and outcome-based resilience were conducted among U.S. Army soldiers. Results demonstrated that in the self-assessed resilience study, resilience was negatively correlated with neuroticism. In the outcome-based resilience GWAS, there were no significant SNPs. However, when Dr. Choi looked at only soldiers who had experienced high deployment stress exposure, although the sample was small, there was one significant locus associated with outcome-based resilience. Findings from these studies indicated that although there were some genome-wide associations, there is no such thing as a “resilience” gene.

How do genetic & environmental factors combine in the face of risk/adversity?

Which modifiable factors are good targets for preventing stress-related disorders?

To address these final questions, Dr. Choi presented findings from Domingue et al. (2017) demonstrating that adults with higher well-being polygenic scores (an index of genetic liability for a trait or disorder), were less vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms following the loss of their spouse. Based on these results, and other similar findings, Dr. Choi concluded that having a low genetic risk for developing certain symptoms might be a protective factor following an adverse event. To address non-genetic factors, Dr. Choi referenced a study by Choi, Chen, et al. (2019) that looked at social cohesion. Among U.S. soldiers at high polygenic and depression risk after combat deployment, having a sense of social cohesion decreased risk of depression, despite being genetically vulnerable. Lastly, Dr. Choi recognized physical activity as a potentially modifiable factor for preventing stress-related disorders. In a recent study by Choi, Zheutlin, et al. (2019), increased physical activity seemed to offset genetic risk for depression, indicating that physical activity may be a protective factor when faced with adversity (Choi, Chen, & Stein, 2019).

To conclude, Dr. Choi reiterated three final points: (1) the importance of defining resilience in research, (2) the consideration of the role that both genetic and environmental factors play, and (3) the need to further explore protective factors and “polygenic resilience” in future research.

No recording available.