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The Sensitivity Gene

August 20, 2012 3 comments

“It’s got nothing to do with environment. With his genes, you could put him anywhere and he’d come out on top. Breeding, same as in race horses. It’s in the blood.”
–Mortimer Duke, Trading Places

Jerome Kagen, Harvard

For years, scientists have been trying to trace the genetic relationship of certain mental conditions. People have long had an inkling, for example, that depression has a hereditary component. They’ve also believed this about anxiety disorders and other kinds of neurosis.

The answers to these genetic questions can be controversial, because they make statements about our identities – either reinforcing or threatening preexisting narratives. Let’s say that there was a single gene that predisposed you to depression. Does that mean you’re destined to live with the disease? Does that status make an irrevocable statement about who you are and who you’ll always be? Would this understanding make you more or less likely to seek treatment? As a society, would we stop trying to address other known contributors to depression – like abusive households – in favor of emphasizing pharmaceutical remedies?

Recently, some exciting new research has come to light showing linkage between genetically-defined brain chemical transporters and personality attributes. Scientists have known for a while that brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin affect mood and disposition. This research takes that relationship one step further, linking a personality trait with certain, specific genetic markers.

I first saw reference to this area in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts. I then read several more related studies and essays by the scientists who originated the research. One of the leading scientists in this field is Jerome Kagen out of Harvard, but many other recent studies have carried this research forward. Read more…