08 September 2011

Nature versus Nurture, is it all in the genes?

Colchester Campus

There is a new twist to the old argument of nature versus nurture, researchers at the University of Essex have discovered.

Professor Elaine Fox has now found that the gene variation thought to make people more vulnerable to depression and anxiety when times are bad, also helps them benefit the most when times are good.

Setting out to answer the question: would differences in the ability to unconsciously favour the negative and the positive be found in our genes, Professor Fox and her team tested more than 100 adults.

The study brought together a revolutionary new computer-based therapy designed to reprogram the brain to avoid a potentially “toxic” tendency to focus on the bad. Called cognitive bias modification, or CBM, this technique is based on the idea that emotional vulnerability and strength are caused by automatic, unconscious biases to zone in on either the positive or the negative.

Over 100 adults took part in tests to see how rapidly biases would develop towards highly emotive images, both positive and negative. All volunteers supplied a sample of their DNA and those with the short version of the serotonin transporter gene, showed much more rapid learning at both extremes, while those with the long version, expressed less reaction. Serotonin is the chemical known to affect mood and the sense of well-being.

Professor Fox of the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Science said: “This suggests that those with the long version are less reactive to the emotional aspects of the environment, which means that they often fare best in fairly benign conditions. However, when times are really bad or really good, it is those with the highly reactive short genotype who either go under or really benefit, making it more like a ‘plasticity’ gene.”

She added that while it would appear that people with the long version are often better off as they are less responsive to a bad situation, they perhaps would not gain as much from a good experience.

The results of this research could be used to determine appropriate therapy for people either facing or recovering from traumatic situations, says Professor Fox. CBM techniques could also be useful to boost resilience and flourishing by generating a healthier mindset.

“Not many of us, thank goodness, deal with the extreme kind of situations that would be affected by the short gene, but if a person’s genotype is identified, the correct therapy can make all the difference to recovery,” said Professor Fox.

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