“We really need better and more effective ways to help people that live with psychiatric illnesses ...”



This episode discusses mental health and mental illness. If you, or someone you know, needs support, call the BC Mental Health Support Line at 310-6789 or find Canada-wide resources right here.

The world of pharmacology helps a lot of people manage mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. But, frankly, it can often be a bumpy road to discover the right medication for your body.

Dr. Kaylee Byers speaks with award-winning Genetic Counselor Dr. Jehannine Austin on how pharmaco-genomics is taking the guesswork out of prescriptions by observing your unique DNA blueprint. Spitting in tubes, traversing the ‘Dark Genome’ and navigating mountains of optimistic (and not so optimistic) data may just hold the key to unlocking the enigmas of genomic science and psychiatry.

With special appearances from Behavioral Neuroendocrinologist Dr. Travis Hodges and pharmaco-genomic testing partner Lisa Ridgway, we discuss the lived experiences and behavioral indicators of those living with complex mental health ailments.

Listen to Nice Genes! wherever you get your podcasts, brought to you by Genome British Columbia.


4:46 - 8:10

“A project to give the right meds for our mental health using genomics.”

19:35 - 21:48

“Exploring the microcosmos of the Dark Genome.”

26:34 - 29:23

“A divided room. Experts react to the data of pharmacogenomics.”



Dr. Travis Hodges 00:01
All right, so it is time to go into the lab. So, let’s head over.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:06
That’s Dr. Travis Hodges,

Dr. Travis Hodges 00:08
We will take the elevator up.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:12
Travis is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. He’s taking us through the laboratory of behavioural neuroendocrinology, where he does some of his research…

Read Transcript

Dr. Travis Hodges 00:22

Well yes, so my main field of study is behavioural neuroscience. And it is all to do with depression. That’s what my research is related to, specifically looking at negative cognitive bias, so a cognitive symptom of depression.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:36

And his lab partners in that research, a few of my favourite furry friends.

Dr. Travis Hodges 00:46

Yes, I work with rats with my research. I’ve worked with rats for ten years now, really cute rats.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:55

As a resident rat detective myself, I’ve spent a lot of time around the wild relatives of these lab rats; we can learn so much from them, from diseases to genetics. In this case, Travis is looking at something else.

Dr. Travis Hodges 01:10

Yeah, my focus is behaviour, and then the mechanisms behind that behaviour.

[From inside the laboratory] And see that the boxes are ready, the lighting has turned on in the box. So a rat will soon enter…

For our task, what they do is, you have one context…

So we have a rat that is now inside the box.

…paired with something positive, like a food reward, things like that. You have another context paired with something negative; it could be anything, it could be a foot shock, it could be just cold, it could be anything, so they don’t like that context in particular. And you then give them in a context that looks a little bit like Context A (so a little bit like the positive one), and a little bit like Context B (so it looks a little bit like the negative one).

All right, so we have another rat that is in, kind of examining their situation to figure out how should they react in this situation. So, it’s like they have been previously they’ve been in a context before that they found is very negative. So, if it was a human, they’d go into a context finding that negative, they go into another context, it looks slightly…

The major goal of observing that behaviour is kind of giving underlying mechanisms and starting to lay the groundwork for looking at these mechanisms in humans. With this rat model that we developed, we’re able to look at a whole bunch of different mechanisms and see what are the parallels with what’s going on in humans in terms of treating those depressive-like behaviours.

All right, so we have a new rat that has been entered into the context. Again…

Dr. Kaylee Byers 02:48

Through his work, Travis aims to understand the early signs of humans developing mental health challenges, things like symptoms of stress, but also anxiety, or depression.

Dr. Travis Hodges 03:00

There’s 200+ symptoms of, especially when it comes to depression. So, there’s so many ways that we kind of display our depression after going through a very stressful situation, and they can manifest in so many different ways.

…alright, rotating around looking at everything…

Dr. Kaylee Byers 03:28

You’re listening to Nice Genes! a show all about unravelling the fascinating world of genomics, sponsored by Genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, your guide through the Microverse of genomes. In this episode, I’m going to take you through a story about some cutting-edge science that could have huge implications on the future of treatment for your health. If our opening rat segment wasn’t already an indicator, we’re going to look at how to better predict and treat mental health needs. And in the world of genomics, how your personal genome can be the key to provide targeted treatments for a host of mental health issues. Things like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and more.

Now, using our genome to guide medical treatments isn’t anything new. As early as the 1950s, scientists were already exploring the potential of genomes to inform medicine.

News Anchor 04:26

Through evolution, the environment selected the behaviours that survive in our genes.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 04:31

But in the field of psychiatry, using your genome to answer these deeper questions has remained a bit of an enigma. So, to explore this theme, I’ve brought in Dr. Jehannine Austin.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 04:37

Thank you so much, Kaylee. It’s nice to be here.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 04:40

For this topic. They’re part of a massive research project taking place, which asks the question, can our genome help improve our mental health?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 04:56

Yes, so the idea behind it is really to try and work out a very specific type of genetic testing which aims to help us understand what the best kind of psychiatric medication might be for a person.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 05:11

What is that based on, like trying to find, trying to find that approach?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 05:15

So, the project is really based on the idea of, it’s called pharmacogenomics or pharmacogenetics. So, pharmacogenetics, slash pharmacogenomics, is really all about the idea that we know that different people will respond differently to the same medication.

So, let’s say, Kaylee, you and I are both prescribed an antidepressant, let’s say, and for me, that medication actually gets rid of my depression and anxiety symptoms, and I don’t have any really bad side effects. Whereas you get prescribed exactly the same medicine, but not only does it not help any symptoms of depression or anxiety that you might be experiencing, but maybe it also gives you some really unpleasant side effects. Maybe you get dry mouth, maybe you get, like, really bad nausea or something like that. So how can that be that you and I are reacting completely differently to the same drug that’s being prescribed to both of us in the same dose?

Well, the idea is that we think that those differences in how we respond is based, at least in part, on differences in our genetic makeup. So, we all have hundreds and hundreds of different genetic changes in our DNA. Some of them will influence how we metabolize medications, including things like antidepressants. And so, really, pharmacogenetics is all about trying to test for those genetic differences that we have, so as we can try to find a medication that works really well for you without causing nasty side effects, essentially. That’s the goal.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 06:59

So how did we get here? Like, how did this project come into being? And how did we get to the point that we’re thinking that it’s linked to our genetics, and we’re looking at that, those small differences between us?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 07:09

In psychiatry, the process of finding a medication that works for someone can be particularly tricky. It’s really common for people to have to go through several different cycles of trying different medications before people find one that works. And obviously, if the reason that you’re being prescribed medication in the first place is because you’re super depressed, that’s not really great. That’s not something that you want to be struggling through if you’re already in a place of, you know, extreme distress. Just to be really blunt. We really need better and more effective ways to help people that live with psychiatric illnesses and to make sure that they don’t have to suffer through multiple rounds of different medication trials to get one that works.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 07:55

It seems to me that what it’s doing is the aim is to cut down on some of this guesswork or the trial and error, as you say, which is so important when you’re trying to find a medication for something like a mental illness around depression or anxiety.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 08:09

That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 08:11

So as a genetic counsellor, what does this process look like for you? Can you walk us through that a little bit?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 08:17

Sure. So yeah, no, I think it’s a really good moment to sort of take a sidestep, I think, and talk about what genetic counselling is because it can interface with the idea of pharmacogenetic testing. But it doesn’t necessarily have to, and it doesn’t always… so clear.

Anyway, so let’s just take a sidebar. So the way to think of it is it sort of a bit like, you know, how you have physiotherapists and speech-language pathologists, and so on. And the goal really, of genetic counselling training, is to help, how to take really complex concepts and to take those really complex concepts and turn it into something that’s actually understandable and meaningful. I think one of the questions people have is about, well, how does genetic testing actually happen? But the basic piece of it is that you need to have some sort of biological sample from a person to test. So lots of the genetic testing companies will actually ask you to spit in a tube, generate a bunch of saliva, spit in a tube and send the tube off to them. And actually, that saliva will contain cells from your body from which DNA can be extracted, right? So that’s a really nice way of doing it.

So I specialize in genetic counselling as it applies to psychiatric disorders. So psychiatric disorders would include things like the conditions we’ve already been talking about today. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, eating disorders, those kinds of things. And when somebody has been diagnosed with a condition like that, we tend to find a lot of things like guilt and blame and shame and fear and stigma. So those emotional responses that people have to receiving that kind of diagnosis can be really powerful and not always helpful, you know, they’re not always good feelings. And so, really, genetic counselling in my space about psychiatric disorders is really helping people to understand it’s not your fault. It’s absolutely not your fault. I don’t care what kind of psychiatric disorder you have. And I don’t care what you think you’ve done to cause it. Well, I do actually care a lot about what you think. But the point is that it is not your fault.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 10:40

Discussing mental health can be difficult, not just personally but scientifically as well. Our minds are like complex puzzles. And there’s really no cover image to go off of, which, frankly, is my go-to for puzzle solving. It just doesn’t always fit into easy-to-read tables and charts. To explore this on a more personal level, Lisa Ridgeway, a person with lived experience of depression, shared her story with us.

Lisa Ridgeway 11:11

So I think, standing on the porch with the dog ready to go, I step off onto the pavement and take a walk beside a long forest. And it’s a forest a very old trees. They’re very old, Garry oak trees, and a Garry oak tree is just a strong, silent oak tree in my backyard. And there’s a duck pond. So I walked by the duck pond with my labrador retriever, who doesn’t seem to take any notice of the ducks. And sometimes, those trees remind me of the people that I’ve lost and being able to ground myself with the dog and, and that helps me come to terms with my lived experience.

Six years ago, and my only sibling died of lymphoma after a couple of bone marrow transplants. Five and six years have gone by, and we’re taking the future one step at a time. One thing depression can do is make it so you aren’t open to any new experiences or to doing anything beyond your bed. It’s like being in a swamp right being in the bottom of the dark hole. And depression is different for everyone. But for some of us, it’s just a big black dog, which is funny because I have a big black dog already that I walked by the duck pond. And it [depression] can feel anything from manageable in the moment to totally unmanageable, leading to some pretty dark thoughts.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 12:42

Lisa was an early proponent of exploring genome sequencing to better help her health.

Lisa Ridgeway 12:47

You know, one big health challenge I have is to even take antidepressants, because many medications, antidepressants, come with side effects, they come with weight gain, you know, loss of libido, constipation, suicidal thoughts. You know, sometimes, when you’ve reached the end of your tether, you’re just ready to find anything that might work. And so we all want to understand a little bit more what’s happening to us. And we all want to understand it more so that we can do something about it. And without that understanding, you’re left to the whims of fortune. So if it works, it will work very well, I think.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 13:27

So I want to bring it back to Dr. Jehannine Austin and discuss some of those difficulties people like Lisa and so many of us face.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 13:36

And so, just to be super clear, what we know about psychiatric disorders is that they arise as a result of the combined effects of our genetics and our experiences working together. It’s not one or the other. These are not just what I would call, strictly speaking, genetic conditions. They’re not caused by genes. But what you can inherit is a vulnerability to psychiatric illness. That’s a different concept. What we know from all of the big fancy research studies that have been done over the last few decades is that literally, every single one of us, every single one, will have some genetic vulnerability to mental illness, all of us.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 14:18

I really want to dive back into some of the science here for a second because you were talking about genetic vulnerability. So am I understanding it correctly that genetic vulnerability might be something like you have a gene or several genes that have been linked to, say, depression, but it doesn’t mean that they’re causing your depression or active or anything?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 14:41

Correct. So I think for a long time, we used to ask questions like, ‘is there a gene for depression?’ ‘What is the gene for depression?’ There is no gene for depression. No, there is no single “The Gene”. In genetic circles like human genetics, we talk about ‘complex disorders’, right. And that doesn’t just mean that they’re tricky, although they are. So, in genetic circles, ‘complex disorder’ has a very specific meaning. And it means that there’s all sorts of different combinations of genetic factors that work together with all sorts of different combinations of experiences to precipitate a particular condition. And so that’s exactly what we see for psychiatric disorders, that there are dozens and dozens and dozens of different genes that you can have changes in that can increase your vulnerability for developing one of these conditions. So it’s not that any of these variations causes depression, causes anxiety, causes schizophrenia. They don’t, right? All they can do is increase your vulnerability or susceptibility, if you prefer, for developing one of these conditions.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 15:56

This gets us into sort of this field of epigenetics, right? How you can have environmental things that may be turned on or off genes, or is it more nuanced than that? What is going on?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 16:05

If I’ve learned anything, as somebody with a Ph.D. in human genetics, it is that nothing is simple. And there is no single answer to everything. So basically, yes, there are, there are environments or experiences that we can have, that have different effects on different people, based on our genetics. But also, people with different genetics can be more likely to seek out different types of environments.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 16:36


Dr. Jehannine Austin 16:37

Right? So it goes in all directions. So again, I’m going to come back to how we call these ‘complex disorders’ and how it’s like if you can literally imagine every dimension of complexity, that’s what we’re talking about. Yeah. So again, if we bring it back to this idea about, you know, trying to identify, and I’m using air quotes very vigorously here, “The Gene” for any of these conditions, it’s just not a thing, not a thing.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 17:04

Oh, well darn.

You’re listening to Nice Genes! a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it. Brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and I have a quick favour to ask you. If you’re liking the show, hit follow on Apple podcast or wherever you get your shows and stick with me as I continue this genomic journey, leave a review and tell a friend about us. It really helps the show liftoff.

As we come back to our talk with genetic counselling expert Dr. Jehannine Austin, there is one other dimension I want to explore with them. In the human genome, there is this one term I’ve seen pop up lately. It’s called the “Dark Genome”. To me, that label might sound a bit intense, like the dark matter of the universe, but at the micro-scale in your DNA. But the reality? Well, it’s far less dramatic. In our previous episode, we discussed something called the Human Genome Project. It was this large-scale initiative to sequence the entire human genome. Scientists were trying to uncover all the tiny bits of information packed in our DNA that make up our genome. In the year 2000 they announced to the world they did. But there’s a catch. About 98% of our DNA was discovered to not code for proteins, the building blocks of our body. When I was studying biology, it was described to me as quote-unquote, “junk DNA”. I understood it is that extra stuff, but it didn’t really seem to be up to anything all that interesting. Now that we have the ability to investigate this part of our genome much more clearly, the insights we’re gaining from it appear to be more than just junk.

Jehannine. Can we talk about this? Have you heard of the “Dark Genome”? What is it?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 19:20

Oh, yeah. So I think that I’m just going to be really blunt. I think that I think that the “Dark Genome” sounds to me like a bit of. Yeah, it’s a rebranding. It’s a marketing gimmick around trying to make something sound really sinister. Unknown, and I don’t know, but really, it’s exactly as you say, Kaylee, right. So it’s stuff that we used to call junk DNA. We shouldn’t call it junk because we know absolutely, categorically, that is not what it is. What we have learned since those early days, however, is that there’s all sorts of other things that can be coded in DNA beyond proteins. We also know that the stuff that we called, we used to call “junk DNA” that apparently is now being rebranded as “Dark Genome” actually contains all sorts of really important regulatory stuff.

One of the things that always helps me understand how important that must be is to think of this very simple fact. Okay, so humans have about give or take 20,000 genes, right? That may sound like a massive number. What about if I tell you that rice has double that number? It’s, it sort of it doesn’t sound quite so impressive then. But then, if you think about humans, as compared to rice, right, to the very best of our knowledge, rice has not yet sequenced its entire genome. So there’s something special about humans, right? So it can’t all be about the number of genes; the number of chunks of DNA that we have that code for proteins, it must be something else. And so what we’re growing to understand is that actually this can we call it “dark junk”?

Dr. Kaylee Byers 21:08

Yeah, please.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 21:08

Let’s call it dark junk.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 21:09

We’ve just rebranded a second time.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 21:14

Yeah, so there’s this “dark junk” is not dark junk at all. It’s, it’s what allows the complexity of expression of the basic pieces of our DNA of the protein-coding genes, and so on. It controls their timing of expression; it controls how they interact with each other and when they interact with each other. So I don’t think that… which is why I roll my eyes and laugh or feel despondent, and I’m trying to talk about dark or junk DNA because it absolutely isn’t. If it was dark or junk, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Because we wouldn’t be capable of conversation because we would be sub-rice somewhere on the…

Dr. Kaylee Byers 21:58

Just blobs of protein.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 21:59


Dr. Kaylee Byers 22:02

But I do think this is a… it raises an interesting question for me around your work, which is that we have so much DNA, right, some of it coded in these genes that make proteins, others not. So, what are the challenges in looking at all of that and trying to figure out what might be indicative of mental health, or our health generally like? How do you wade through all of that?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 22:24

Yeah. It’s not trivial, right? And I think that, and just so that everybody knows, I mean, this was what the purpose of my Ph.D. was, you know, I was looking for genes that could make people more vulnerable to developing things like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This is a little history lesson isn’t it? So if we think back to the 1950s, and I know that’s a frighteningly, that was really when we started being able to look at DNA at all in humans, right. And it was very blunt instrument that we had. All we could do in the 1950s was literally looked down a microscope at chromosomes. That was it. But despite the fact that it was such a blunt instrument, that still allowed us to identify why it was that some people are born with Down syndrome because you could look down a microscope, and you could see that most people have 46 chromosomes and that they arranged in these little pairs and things. And what we could see for people who have Down syndrome is that they had an extra one, there was a there was another chromosome 21, that you can see down the microscope. And that’s what causes Down syndrome.

So, when we were looking at psychiatric disorders, obviously, one of the first things you can do is look down microscopes. Do people with schizophrenia have anything visibly different than people without? No, they don’t. They don’t. So that was a bit of a non-starter as a… So, one of the next things that became available was this thing called the ‘linkage study’. The best way I have describing the linkage study is that what you’re doing is you’re looking for chunks of DNA that are transmitted through multiple generations of a family together with an illness. And because you can imagine that there’s probably something in that chunk of DNA that’s causing the condition, right? And it was linkage studies that gave us the like, that allowed us to identify the genes that cause Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis. But those conditions are very different than psychiatric disorders, again, because these are conditions that are caused entirely by a particular gene. So maybe the problem is that there aren’t any genes that have that big of an effect in the same way that Huntington’s does or the cystic fibrosis gene.

So, in the 90s, there was a new technique that became available, and that was called the ‘association study’. And what you’re doing with that is looking for, at tiny individual differences in the genome and seeing whether they occur more frequently in people with a condition than without. So, people started doing association studies. And again, they were finding all sorts of like contradictory results and replication of any findings was really odd.

So, but to bring it up to sort of more up to date, so by the 2000s, where we ended up with a situation where the ‘genome-wide association study’ was possible. And those are super cool because instead of looking at individual variations in the genome one by one, so the genome-wide association study is super cool because you don’t have to sort of try and develop hypotheses about things. You can just say, let’s look at variations everywhere, across the genome and see what sticks essentially.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 25:42

So, what have you been finding by looking at this DNA and these changes in our DNA? And does your does our genome hold the keys to our mental health challenges?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 25:54

So, okay, so I want to talk about two different things very briefly. So we’ve been talking a lot over the last few minutes about the changes in our DNA that make us more vulnerable to developing psychiatric illnesses, right. And as we’ve discussed, there is no single ‘The Gene’ for any of these conditions, right? There’s dozens and dozens of these variations that can make us more vulnerable to developing them, and they all act in combination with the experiences that we have or the environments that we’re in, right? So, the other part of it, though, to bring it back to the project that I am co-leading, is that there are going to be some genetic differences that influence how we respond to a medication that were prescribed because we’ve already developed a condition.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 26:41

Are you finding any challenges with looking at the data? How accurate is it? As someone who deals with data a lot of the time and struggles with it? What are you finding? What are the challenges there?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 26:53

Yeah. So I think one of the really fascinating things about this field for me was that I came into it from a very ambivalent position, I would say, because what I’ve seen over the last ten years or so is that if you get a bunch of psychiatrists and a bunch of psychiatric geneticists together, and you show them all of the papers that have been published to date, they’re all looking at the same data, right? You’ll get about half of the room going “Oh, my goodness, we should be doing this kind of pharmacogenetic testing for everyone with depression; right now! Look at this data; we should do it now.” And the other half of the room will look at exactly the same stuff and go, “No! We’re not anywhere near having enough evidence that this is effective yet.” But these people are all experts. And they’re all looking at exactly the same pile of data. And when we started this project, I didn’t know who to side with, basically.

So, for me, like this project was as much of an effort in trying to reconcile my own, like… I want the things that I do in my practice as a genetic counsellor, I want the things that we as a society deliver as healthcare interventions, especially in the context of our publicly funded healthcare system, we have to be making these decisions based on evidence, not what feels right. Right? So, I didn’t know whether it worked or not when we started this project. But one of the things that we’ve done actually is a meta-analysis of all of the studies that have looked at applying pharmacogenetic testing for depression. We found that actually if you do pharmacogenetic testing for depression, it looks like there is a greater chance of remission. So that is that your symptoms get better, and a greater chance of recovery from depression, for example, right. But, and there’s a but, but the quality of the data that this is based on is low. And the risk of bias in the studies that have been done is high. So that means lots of the studies that have been done to date have been sponsored by companies that market the tests, for example. So anyway, it’s been an absolutely fascinating thing to get involved with that will hopefully allow us to use all sorts of different very complex parameters to figure out like, how, you know whether or not this is actually something that will be helpful and effective at the population level in BC? Yeah.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 29:39

For Lisa Ridgeway, she tried genome sequencing several years ago, before Dr. Jehannine Austin and their colleagues began their work. At that point in time, it didn’t yield much help for her.

Lisa Ridgeway 29:53

We found this genetic testing company on “Dr. Google” from an independent American company in 2017, and the cost was over 1000 Canadian dollars at the time, and the results well, I was very hopeful that it would cut the time down to find the right family of antidepressants for me to take. And when I got the results in my hands, I was very disappointed in the results. And we took the report that we got to my very good psychiatrist, and he basically looked at the report and said we had wasted our money because no one could interpret the results. Things have improved muchly by now. So I think we’d be ready to try it again at some stage. But certainly, I would like to try it and see if it works. And that’s the whole business behind the pharmacogenomics project is, you know, knowing that what medications would work for people in advance so that they wouldn’t have to go through the trial and error periods that we’ve all gone through with our different antidepressants. I think everybody’s in that ‘Eureka!’ optimistic group by now because we are getting some early good results. And that’s very heartening for us.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 31:08

Jehannine, as a genetic counsellor, when you’re working with someone, what is that experience? Like from the time they come to see you? And the time that they leave? Did they feel better? Are things… did things get more complicated?

Dr. Jehannine Austin 31:22

Yeah, right. So yeah, so we’ve actually been doing research for a number of years on what happens as a result of the genetic counselling that we provide for people. What we found is that by having these conversations with people about what causes psychiatric illness and what they can do to help protect their mental health for the future, and so on, we actually see quite dramatic increases in empowerment. And that’s this idea that you know, you feel like, I mean honestly, you just feel a bit better about yourself, essentially, and you feel more able to, to have agency to actually do something about the thing that you’re living with.

We want to help people to have better mental health, right? If you’re empowered, then you can engage in behaviour changes to protect your mental health. If you’re not empowered, you cannot, we know this; it’s already been established in the research. So we were hoping that, well, okay, if we’ve shown that people are more empowered after genetic counselling, maybe they will change, maybe they’re actually changing their behaviour. Right? So and we’ve done some research to look at that too. And they do seem to be changing their behaviour to protect their mental health. And we’ve got some research going on now to try and examine whether that actually ultimately affects people’s mental health outcomes as well. So, yeah, those are the sorts of things that we can see as outcomes of this service that we provide. It’s super cool. Yeah.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 32:56

Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Austin.

Dr. Jehannine Austin 32:59

Absolute pleasure. Kaylee, thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Travis Hodges 33:09

So, through my research, I started observing a behaviour which I label kind of the ‘optimistic rat’, even though that’s more of a human behavior, but what I’m looking at in these rats is, they are more positive thinking.

[From the laboratory] Oh, that middle-aged rat has just moved its head slightly. So, in the previous two rats, they looked at the adolescence, they spent about 0% of the time freezing, so they have a very positive cognitive bias when put in ambiguous situations.

As I tell a lot of people, especially a lot of students when they’re coming into the field, and like if they are starting to work with rats, at first, they’ll be like, I don’t know if I want to work with these, but then they fall in love with them and start talking to them in a room. And that’s when you know you’re ready to do your Ph.D I guess. I’m so happy to do this and so happy to talk about rats! It’s my favourite.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 34:08

As we try to provide better care for people struggling with depression or anxiety and other mental health challenges, will we get closer to finding a solution with genomics? From what Dr. Jehannine Austin described, they’re on the path to re-envisioning how we think not just about our mental health but also potential treatments now and into the future, but a few more careful considerations still need to be made.

That’s it for this episode of Nice Genes! My guest today have been Dr. Jehannine Austin, Lisa Ridgeway and Dr. Travis Hodges. If you’d like what you heard or have a comment about one of the stories, please reach out to the show on Twitter by going to @GenomeBC. We’d love to hear from you. Join us on our next episode, where we go on a hunt.

Dr. Cylita Guy 35:01

So when I think of just kind of like an elusive kind of tricksy extremely intelligent animal… when I was working in Amboseli, so southern Kenya, there was this one renowned crop raider elephant. His name is Tim.

Dr. Kaylee Byers 35:15

We’ll look into how scientists are using genomics as their secret weapon to tracking down some of the most elusive creatures in the wild.

Follow us on Apple podcast or wherever you get your shows. Until then, A, T, G, C you later. And thanks for listening.





Most of us have a hard-enough time looking for our cell phone chargers in the dark. So imagine trying to find something that’s hidden high in building rafters, deep in muddy bogs, or scattered across endless savannahs. And now, imagine the thing you’re looking for has fangs… and sharp claws.

Dr. Kaylee Byers and her wing-woman Dr. Cylita Guy, call-in wildlife conservationist Gabi Fleury to assist in answering, ‘How do you find that which doesn’t want to be found? And should you?’ Globally speaking, does our need to turn over every rock to find vulnerable species really intersect with conservation? Rats, Bats, and cheetahs weasel their way into this exciting conversation on how the study of genomics may be the “hopping off point” into a more sustainable future.

Also joining us is world famous DNA scientist, professor and globe-trotting adventurer Eske Willerslev, sharing the secret weapon he pioneered to find some of the world’s most elusive creatures.


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Host: Kaylee Byers
Creative Director: Jen Moss
Strategy: Roger Nairn
Producer: Sean Holden
Content Creator: Phoebe Melvin
Audio Engineer: Patrick Emile
Cover Art Designer: Amanda Di Genova

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