Accepted Paper:

Environmental epigenetics and mental health research: enacting trauma in the lab  


Georgia Samaras (Technical University of Munich)

Paper short abstract:

This paper contributes to better understanding how environmental epigenetics refigures mental health research in the lab. It investigates how psychosocial trauma is transformed into a research object that is accessible in lab experiments and examines notions of pathology and therapy that co-emerge.

Paper long abstract:

Environmental epigenetics (EE) is a field that understands the human

body and mind as malleable by its surroundings: environmental

factors, for example air pollution or nutrition but also stressful living conditions, are considered to influence the gene activity and hence physical and mental health. I am particularly interested in the hypotheses that negative events in life, such as trauma and stress, can leave marks on the epigenome that increase the likelihood of mental illness in later life (Yehuda et al. 2015). In my PhD project, I investigate how researchers in one specific psychiatric research institute use approaches from EE to better understand mental illness. In this talk, I will specifically focus on how they enact trauma as an epistemic object in their work. Drawing on participant observation, qualitative interviews and literature analysis, I investigate how researchers transform trauma into a research object that is accessible in the lab, for example, by experimentally enacting it as 'maximum stress'. I trace how trauma is enacted in different experimental set-ups (cell culture, mouse model, human cohorts) and how researchers configure the relations between these different research models. Across these different levels, I investigate how this increasingly biomolecular perspective on mental health refigures current understandings of trauma in terms of pathology and nosology and shapes researchers' visions of potential therapies and prevention strategies.

Panel A01
Biosocial forms of living: imbricating technologies, social and medical knowledge