Feature

"If the promise of the revolutionary enterprise of reading our own instruction book is going to play out for the benefit of humankind, we need your expertise and your skills," Francis Collins, MD, PhD, told psychologists at APA's 2000 Annual Convention, Aug. 4­8.

In a plenary address, Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), drew connections between the Human Genome Project and psychology, remarking that as the genome reaches completion, behavioral scientists' contributions will be increasingly in demand. On June 26, Collins and his counterpart in private enterprise, J. Craig Venter, PhD, president of Celera Genomics, announced that a "working draft" of the human genome had been completed.

"It is fair to say that we're embarking on a rather remarkable adventure," Collins said at the APA convention. But, he noted, "The goal of the genome project is not just to get that instruction book, but also to understand how it works, in both health and disease. So we can think of this milestone, of having a working draft of the sequence in front of us, as the end of the beginning."

Although the main motivation for the genome project was medical, Collins said, behavioral science is an important aspect of the effort.

First, he pointed out, the project has already shed greater light on some psychological questions. For example, he said, it's now confirmed that 99.9 percent of the genome is shared by all humans--much more than is the case for older primate species, such as chimpanzees. Importantly, he said, "there are no variations [in DNA] that allow you to conveniently draw boundaries around particular population groups.

"This is important for scientists to recognize--that we often unwittingly endorse those differences as though they did have a scientific basis, by utilizing terminology that implies that, biologically, Asians are different from Europeans, who are different from Africans," Collins said. "I would argue that many of the studies that have pointed out differences be tween those populations are really looking more at social, cultural and environmental factors, or socioeconomic factors, than they are at genetic differences."

Second, Collins noted that most diseases have both genetic and behavioral components that jointly shape the course of disease and the body's response to particular drug treatments. Many such diseases are of interest to psychologists, including bipolar illness, schizophrenia, autism and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Medical scientists will soon be able to examine which of the 0.1 percent of the genome that varies across humans correlates with which of these diseases, Collins said.

Finally, he commented, psychologists' expertise is needed to understand how people will make medical decisions in the face of a detailed "report card" that outlines the illnesses for which they are at greatest risk.

"We are all at risk for something," Collins said. "The time is coming, not far off, when quite a number of those risks will be ascertainable."

But, he said, scientists do not yet fully understand how people will react to the individualized health information that doctors will soon be able to provide.

"It is my hypothesis that that kind of individual information will be more effective in preventive medicine than the current one-size-fits-all information," Collins said. "But is that hypothesis justified? We need that kind of information, and we need it as soon as we can get it."

Collins also suggested that as individualized predictive health information becomes increasingly available, psychologists, social workers, dietitians and other behavioral experts will need to gain greater mastery of the field of genetics.

"This field is no longer going to be an area that exists up there in the ivory tower of the tertiary medical center, focused on rare diseases. This is going to spill out into the mainstream."

To help prepare psychologists and other health providers, Collins said, the NHGRI and partnering health organizations, including APA, have founded a National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics. The coalition recently received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to assemble a curriculum of genetics information for health providers.