Epigenetic Activity in Adolescents 1

A Hypothesis – Mediation of Students’ Hippocampal Stress Response by a Teacher


First submitted for publication: 22 March 2008

Geoff M. Ayling, Qianhuang International College, No.6 Guang Dian Dong Road, Changzhou City, Jiangsu, 213161, China

email address: geoff.ayling@theforrestproject.org



The hippocampus requires epigenetic activation to mediate the stress response and thereby, susceptibility to diseases in adult life. This can also avert impairment of its learning and memory functions. Mediation of the hippocampal stress response can be further achieved through increased self-esteem and internal locus of control. These characteristics are also significant components in adolescent development. Here a trial is reported in which a teacher’s program appeared to routinely enhance the self-esteem and internal locus of control of 82 out of 90 students, possibly mediating stress response and health risks in their adult life, including that of their offspring. A marked transition occurred in the students. Simultaneous enhancement of their current stage of development appeared to enable them to commence learning to the limits of their potential. The program could be introduced in schools for the management of students’ health and academic development.

Keywords: Epigenetic, behavioural, adolescent, hippocampus, stress response, developmental disease, education

The hippocampal stress response has been shown in early life to require mediation through epigenetic activation (Meaney, 2001; Weaver et al, 2004), which in turn reduces susceptibility to diseases later in the life cycle. Mediation of the stress response occurs through activation of the hippocampal exon 17 glucocorticoid receptor promoter. Glucocorticoid feedback by the hippocampus blocks synthesis and release of the corticotropin-releasing factor, reducing hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal responses to stress.

It is necessary to achieve a reduction in the release of glucocorticoids. Repeated, long-term release leads in adult life to atrophy of the hippocampus, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, immune dysfunctions, neural degeneration and certain cancers. Impairment of the hippocampus initially leads to loss of memory and learning ability.

The epigenetic mechanism has been shown to occur with differential effectiveness (Laplante et al, 2004; Menard et al, 2004; Parent et al, 2005; Cameron et al, 2005). This can to some extent be overcome through more effective epigenetic environmental stimulation which activates a further gene, the nerve growth factor-inducible protein A transcription factor, bound to the exon 17 glucocorticoid receptor promoter within the hippocampus (Weaver et al, 2007).

Enhanced self-esteem and internal locus of control have also been shown to mediate the stress response, reducing the hippocampal absorption of the neuroendocrine cortisol (Pruessner et al, 2004; Pruessner et al, 2005).

These two behavioural characteristics have for decades been recognised as being integral components in the development of adolescents. Failure to acquire these characteristics during development may, according to the theories of Erikson (Erikson, 1950, 1956, 1959; McCarthy, 1995) and Chickering (Chickering, 1969, 1993), result in an adolescent finding it difficult to achieve e.g. as a result of not having progressed through the identity crisis.

The development of locus of control in adolescents, studied by repeated measurement in 84 boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years (Kulas, 1996), found no significant changes. This period in the lives of adolescents was considered to be a period of relative stability in terms of locus of control. The study led to the suggestion that developmental changes occurred at an earlier time or were determined by events such as school achievement.

Shindler (Shindler, 2009 ) had for the following decade however, encouraged his student-teachers to utilise specific teaching and learning techniques, which should lead to the enhancement of self-esteem and internal locus of control. This was despite the fact that no report was known of any trial which specifically enhanced these characteristics. The justification for his approach was from behavioural theory and anecdotally encouraging reports by individual teachers.

His program of enhancement involved the development in students of behaviours thought to provide a practical means of gaining self-esteem: locus of control, sense of acceptance/belonging and self-efficacy.

Shindler’s achievement of these behaviours was explained in the following terms, which suggested that they might well be descriptions of epigenetic environmental factors.

Internal locus of control is achieved through promoting a clear understanding of cause and effect within the student. Each individual needs to see that achievement for which he is accountable, is directly related to his level of effort. This is in contrast to an orientation that views cause as an external factor, in which life ‘happens to us.’ An internal locus of control results from a causal understanding of behaviour and effect. It is learned from freely making choices and taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices. Through responsible action and accountability for those actions, the young person learns to attribute the cause of success or failure internally.

Acceptance and belonging are fostered among students through the behaviours that are accepted, assessed and managed, together with the attitudes and values that create reality in classes. In an environment where there is emotional support and a minimum of destructive criticism, students can feel empowered to take risks, express themselves and persist in the face of difficulty.

Sense of self-efficacy is generated from evidence that confirms to a student that he has done something well. When a young person obtains sensory feedback that he has succeeded in a given task or demonstrated a talent, he will be confident in applying that ability in the future.

Shindler further described the role of the teacher as critical in the process. Too often many teachers’ practices destroy the foundations of self-esteem without knowing it. These practices may be ‘working’ on some level, but in essence they are working against the teacher’s ability to teach and students’ ability to achieve long-term growth.

There was a fundamental difference between the approach of Shindler and that employed in this trial. Shindler was interested to enhance academic achievement through creating a psychology of success in the classroom, the result of promoting student self-esteem. In this trial, it was hypothesized that an epigenetic change might be able to be induced in students, through the application of social epigenetic environmental factors.

The possibly epigenetic environmental factors outlined in these terms were both experiential (for the student) and social (the relationship between teacher and student). It seemed that a further epigenetic means of activating the hippocampus may have been documented. This suggested that upon applying the potential environmental factors, close monitoring of student behaviours might reveal measurable signs of changes resulting from the expression of a gene(s) associated with stress response, self-esteem and internal locus of control.

The aim of this trial was then to demonstrate that a teacher’s program may affect the functioning of the hippocampus of a student and thereby his health in adult life, his development, learning and memory abilities and hence, educational opportunities that could lead him to achieve to the limits of his developed potential.



Ninety 18-year old students enrolled to study university-entrance subjects participated in the eight-month trial in 2007. Enhancement of self-esteem and internal locus of control were undertaken according to Shindler’s approach, simultaneously with traditional teaching and learning of physics.

Monitoring of self-esteem and locus of control was based upon estimations by a teacher, using behavioural criteria as shown in Table 1. Students’ study notebooks and formal testing provided the basis for estimating developmental changes for each characteristic in each individual student.



The students appeared at the outset as shown in Table 2, to have had lower levels of self-esteem and internal locus of control, which increased significantly during the course of study. The increase occurred as a clearly discernible transition, which ranged from a minimal starting level, to approximately the same level for all students upon completion. That is, the phenomenon appeared to be all or nothing.

The vast majority of students (91 percent) experienced the transition in their levels of both self-esteem and locus of control (Table 3). The period of change was more prolonged for many students, 39 percent experiencing it for up to 3 months, 42 percent completing between 4 and 7 months, while 9 percent started late and would not complete their transition within the 8 month study period. A further 9 percent experienced no change at all.

The transition occurred at different times throughout the study course (Table 3). It was completed by one student (Mary, Fig. 1) within 4 months from commencement, with 80 percent of students completing between months 5 and 8. A further 10 percent did not complete within the 8 month period. Fig. 2 illustrates the changes experienced by the student Tom, whose transition was completed in month 8. Rose (Fig. 3) was however unable to complete her transition until month 7, after what appeared to be false starts. Dick was unfortunately unable to complete his transition (Fig. 4) after five months of false starts.

One student designated as Cinderella (Fig. 5), began the year with chronic lack of confidence, experiencing her transition in month 7. She was by the end of the year among the high academic achievers. In contrast, the student Harry (Fig. 6) appeared to be stricken throughout the year, by both lack of confidence and the non-appearance of any sign of internal locus of control developing.

There were 13 students whose thinking appeared to resemble Piaget’s (Piaget, 1930, 1952, 1960) third cognitive stage (concrete operational thinking, from the age of 7 to 11 years). The 8 students who did not undergo any transition had this type of thinking. Four of the 13 students appeared to have undergone a transition in the study period to the fourth cognitive level (abstract or formal operational thinking, from the age of 11 to 15 years). None were however able to complete their transition, of whom 5 were among the 10 percent whose transitions might perhaps be completed after the 8 month period.



The increases in self-esteem and internal locus of control experienced by the students, suggested that stress response levels had been mediated during the study period. The reduction in the stress response indicates that this intervention could reduce the risk in adult life of impaired learning and memory, metabolic syndrome diseases and certain cancers. The routine enhancement of self-esteem and internal locus of control could therefore be regarded as a component of preventative medicine, which benefits the health of adolescents in adult life and in their offspring.

These adolescents acquired levels of self-esteem and internal locus of control which they might not under other circumstances have attained during the year. They could have at a later time encountered circumstances which may have developed these characteristics. It could occur however that many would not perhaps encounter circumstances in the near future or even in their lifetimes, which might result in their attaining such development.

Relationships were found between academic performance and these characteristics, which were fully expected from earlier studies (Solley and Stagner, 1956; Klein and Keller, 1990; Rennie, 1991; Lester, 1992; Wang and Stiles, 1976; Bar-Tal and Bar-Zohar, 1977). Enhanced memory and learning abilities could be explained by the students having healthy hippocampuses.

An indication of the academic performance of these students can be seen from the fact that 48 percent achieved marks of 90 percent or more, for all tests covering every aspect of the course of study throughout the year. The percentage of high achievers is commonly used by parents, when selecting schools for students who appear to have the potential to study at university and enter a career. Very few schools are able to send half of their students to universities as high achievers.

All but one of the 90 students were successful in passing their university entrance examinations and gaining places in overseas universities. This was despite the fact that 50 percent of the students had during their high school years been diverted to study the humanities, in the mistaken belief by teachers that the sciences and mathematics would have been too difficult for them.

Shindler described the techniques for enhancing the characteristics as well known, yet not widely practised because of lack of understanding. Most experienced teachers tend to regard such techniques as esoteric and academic, with little value in real life situations. This trial confirmed that the techniques were both feasible in a school context and routinely practicable.

The nature of the transition, lasting from 3 to 7 months and generally completed within 5 to 8 months of commencement, suggested that it was fundamental to the growth and development of a student. This applied to all but a small minority.

The students who did not experience a transition and had only developed their cognitive thinking to the third stage, would further suggest that the transition was associated with their development.

The possibility of four students having progressed to the fourth cognitive level was not able to be confirmed under the conditions of the trial. If this had actually occurred then it would be a significant finding. This observation needs to be examined in further studies.

The possibility of devising techniques that enable this transition to occur has been an objective for many researchers since the 1920s, when Piaget (Piaget, 1930, 1952, 1960) first proposed his theory of cognitive development. From that time to the present day, large populations have been repeatedly studied and the static proportion of abstract to concrete thinkers has remained at about 35 percent.

Such a program of enhancement could be considered a means of ensuring normal growth of a range of developmental characteristics, as described by Piaget, Erikson and Chickering. This should also be of value to researchers interested in reducing susceptibility during adolescence, revealed by studies of the aetiology of diseases of developmental origin.

The program could also be considered to be a fundamental act of developmental assistance for adolescents. The importance of assisting adolescents to progress through key stages of their development has been stressed by education psychologists (Par and Ostrovsky, 1991; Swafford and Bryan, 2000; Le Capitaine, 2001; Eggen and Kauchak, 2004). A well known researcher, LeCapitaine (Le Capitaine, 2001) has commented ‘of what good is it to graduate the mind but to lose the person?’ Many researchers have complained that education authorities have for too long failed to heed the need to assist children to develop.

Numerous writers have described the breakdown of high schools (ACT, 2004; Achieve Inc, 2005; Educational Testing Service, 2005; Achieve Inc and National Governors Association, 2005; Perkins-Gough, 2005), as having tragic sociological consequences for families and a significant factor in the economic progress of the United States and many other countries. The breakdown appears to result from the failure of students to achieve sufficient development to cope with educational studies. Millions of families each year witness a student child unable to obtain an education and hence, a career path that should be followed. There are as a result insufficient numbers of students coming through high schools and entering universities to study technology and the sciences.


Future Research:

Future research in 2008 will continue with a similar cohort of students, whose transitions will be measured in greater detail, to better define the epigenetic environmental factors responsible. Counterproductive practices of teachers and the resulting characteristics generated in students will be examined.

The role of the teacher needs to be defined more clearly, to be distinguishable from the three key behavioural criteria: internal locus of control, acceptance/belonging and self-efficacy. As well, a strong student experiential component inherent in the study course needs to be studied, so as to be distinguishable from the effects of the behavioural criteria.

All potential experiential and social environmental factors need therefore to be critically examined and their roles in the process defined as clearly as possible.

In this trial a degree of subjectiveness existed because of the need for a teacher to estimate the levels of self-esteem and locus of control, based upon the written work of students in their studies and tests. This was undertaken for the study of physics. Shindler has described this estimation as being well within the capabilities of a teacher. There is a need however to reduce subjectiveness in the next trial, which could be achieved by teachers of different subjects independently estimating student developmental changes.

There will no doubt be a number of students whose thinking is still at the cognitive concrete operational stage. Indications will be particularly sought of any who appear in the study period to progress to abstract thinking. Identification of a particular epigenetic environmental factor responsible would be given a high priority.

A need exists for an imaging laboratory to correlate the transition with structural and functional changes in the brain. As well, there is a need for molecular biologists to correlate the transition with the release of neuroendocrine compounds and the gene receptor(s) involved.

The sociological and economic importance of the finding suggests a need to study the applicability of such a program, for adolescents of different ages in various types of schools and ultimately address the worldwide breakdown in education.



The trial has demonstrated that a teacher’s program may have implications for the health of students in adult life. If the changes that have been established can be confirmed as being of epigenetic origin, then it is likely that not only the health of the student, but that of his offspring may benefit. A student’s development, learning and memory abilities and hence, educational opportunities also appeared to have been enhanced, perhaps sufficient for him to achieve to the limits of his developed potential.

It is concluded that increasing self-esteem and internal locus of control may, through a teacher’s program of transformative classroom management, enhance students’ academic performance. As a result of this process a teacher might assist the growth and functioning of the hippocampus of each student. This has not been reported before.