Research needs large groups

I’d like to share this editorial that appeared in Nature last week titled “No easy answer“, which discusses the mistake to try and analyse recent mass shooter Adam Lanza’s genes. A lot of really important points are brought up in the editorial, but I think the most important one is regarding the association of one person’s data with a conclusion. As scientists, maybe we aren’t getting across how trivial one person’s data is.

Illustration of DNA

One person’s genes are not useful to researchers.
Photo: © Yunxiang987 | Stock Free Images

In many research studies we do not even offer the participants to see their own individual data. The reason for this is that we are a research study, not a doctor’s office. As researchers, we are looking at effects and patterns across a group of many people. You cannot do a research study with only one person. Sometimes hundreds or even thousands are required, depending on the size of the effect you are expecting.

One person’s results could be due to any number of things, including things that we have not measured. So providing participants with results may lead them to self-diagnose, or interpret their results incorrectly. If someone wants a clinical diagnosis for a problem they are concerned about, the proper thing to do is go to a doctor or a therapist, who can work with them and address any issues and then recommend a treatment that is best for their situation. Providing research participants with their own individual results is a problem I addressed previously when discussing the uBiome project.

As the Nature editor points out, there is not much that we will be able to tell about Adam Lanza’s genes alone. They do not even know what kind of gene they are looking for. The “violence” gene? It doesn’t exist, at least not that we are aware of. And one person’s data is not going to give us the answer. Although we are learning a lot more about genetics and mental health, the relationships between these things don’t always hold true for each individual. There are lots of people that have gene mutations that normally indicate an association with a mental illness, but they do not have that mental illness. The thing is, we know that genetics often interacts with environments to affect development. So the environment you grow up in is just as important as your genes.

It’s nice to think that something positive may come out of the Connecticut shooting tragedy, but analysing the shooter’s genes is not the answer. Instead, we should focus more on research that helps us to understand why people develop in abnormal ways and what drives them to violence in the first place. We can answer questions like these with large, well-funded, and well-designed research projects.

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