On the Trail of the Orchid Child

Stylized orchid branch, vector illustrationOne genetic variant leads to the best and worst outcomes in kids

By Wray Herbert (Scientific American)

SCIENTIFIC PAPERS tend to be loaded with statistics and jargon, so it is always a delightful surprise to stumble on a nugget of poetry in an otherwise technical report. So it was with a 2005 paper in the journal Development and Psychopathology, drily entitled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” which looked at kids’ susceptibility to their family environment. The authors of the research paper, human development specialists Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona and W. Thomas Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley, borrowed a Swedish idiom to name a startling new concept in genetics and child development: orkidebarn.

Orkidebarn means “orchid child,” and it stands in contrast to maskrosbarn, or “dandelion child.” As Ellis and Boyce explained in their paper, dandelion children seem to have the capacity to survive—even thrive—in whatever circumstances they encounter. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children, in contrast, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children promptly wither—but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but flourish. In the authors’ poetic language, an orchid child becomes “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”

Sensitive Souls

Inside the small world of scientists who study genetics and child development, the notion of the orchid child was stunning. The idea of resilient children was hardly new, nor was the related idea that some kids are especially vulnerable to the stresses of their world. What was novel was the idea that some of the vulnerable, highly reactive children—the orchid children—had the capacity for both withering and thriving. They appeared to be extremely sensitive to home and family life, for better or worse. Is it possible, scientists wondered, that genes underlie this double-edged childhood sensitivity?

Ellis and Boyce’s paper launched a search both for those genes and for the risk pathways that might lead to bad outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse and mental illness. Most of the work initially focused on the genes that behavioral geneticists call the “usual suspects”—and it paid off. Studies soon showed that genes linked to particular enzymes or brain chemical receptors, if combined with family stress or maltreatment, can lead to a slew of behavioral problems or mood disorders. These links have now been verified again and again, and scientists are searching for additional genes that might play a role in this exquisite childhood sensitivity.

But where to look? If one is looking for genes that might be linked to unhappy lives, the genetics of heavy drinking is a place to start. That was the reasoning of behavioral geneticist Danielle M. Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University, who, with 13 other scientists from around the world, has been exploring a gene called CHRM2. CHRM2 has already been implicated in alcohol dependence, which is in the same group of disruptive behaviors as childhood conduct disorders and antisocial behavior. What’s more, the gene codes for a chemical receptor involved in many brain functions, such as learning and memory, so the gene might also be involved in behavioral disorders. Dick and her colleagues recently decided to test the idea.

The team of researchers took DNA samples from a group of more than 400 boys and girls who have been part of a larger child development study since before kindergarten and analyzed variations in their CHRM2 gene. These kids did not have behavioral problems at the start; they were a representative sample from communities in three U.S. cities. The youngsters have been studied every year since kindergarten, and they were around age 17 at the time of this new study. The scientists collected information on the teenagers’ misbehavior—delinquency, aggression, drug abuse, and so on—from both the mothers and the kids themselves. They also asked the teens how much their parents knew about their lives—such as their whereabouts, who they hung out with, what they did with their time, and how they spent their money. They wanted to get a general idea of how closely these kids were monitored by their parents in their daily comings and goings as a way of measuring parental nurturing, indifference or neglect.

Withering or Thriving

As reported in the April Psychological Science, the genetic and behavioral data are consistent with the orchid child model of susceptibility. That is, certain variations in the children’s CHRM2 gene appear to interact with parental negligence to produce the most undesirable teenage behavior. But the nature of that interaction is what is most important: the genetic variant that combined with lousy parenting to produce the worst aggression and delinquency also combined with the most attentive parenting to produce the best teenage outcomes. Put another way, the kids who ran the highest risk of developing bad behaviors in bad homes were least likely to struggle when living in healthy, nurturing homes.

Although the scientists studied parental monitoring or awareness, this measure is most likely a proxy for a teenager’s environment more generally. That is, adolescents who scored low on parental involvement are probably more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods and to hang out with friends who tend to get into trouble. Some kids—the dandelion children—might do okay in such a world, but these stresses may be enough to tank the genetically sensitive orchid children.

If CHRM2 does turn out to be an orchid child gene, some earlier findings might now begin to make sense. For example, the gene has also been linked to serious depression in some studies and to cognitive ability in others. But the gene does not appear to code for these outcomes directly, nor do all these outcomes necessarily show up in all genetically at-risk teenagers. Indeed, CHRM2 may not be a gene “for” anything—other than the tendency to follow life’s fortunes or misfortunes.