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Innate stress

July 18, 2018

A team of researchers from the Higher School of Economics and the RAS Vavilov Institute of General Genetics has been able to statistically monitor the impact of the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) on the subjective evaluation of well-being among men. This work has been published in the article 'Association of MAOA-uVNTR Polymorphism with Subjective Well-Being in Men' and is the latest step towards an understanding of how genes can affect social phenomena.

Looking at the evolution of civilization since ancient times, scientists tend to link differences in societal development to geographical characteristics, culture, and the nature of institutions. Researchers also consider genetics to be one of the possible factors that impact culture. In its development, humanity has gone through so-called 'bottlenecks,' when its population was very small due to various catastrophes. Genetic material was subsequently rather homogenous, which is why all individuals who are currently alive are more similar to one another than certain types of animals that live in the same pack. Over the course of many millennia, starting from the last catastrophic event roughly 70,000 years ago, smaller human collectives nonetheless split up in different directions. In one of these groups, a certain variant of a gene might suddenly disappear (due to a low number of groups and their being relatively isolated from one another), while a different type of gene might disappear in another group. Because of this, in different parts of the globe people are still somewhat different from one another in light of genetic drift.

There is also the assumption that different types of societies need different human qualities. For example, in a primitive communal system the ability to concentrate on a single job was not as important as the ability to respond instantaneously to danger and protect yourself from harm. When governments appeared, the social order became more complex. New types of jobs emerged that were generally not carried out previously, and these jobs required that people have new qualities, including the ability to carry out monotonous tasks without getting distracted. These necessary qualities gain traction in a culture through value paradigms (the idea of right and wrong), and in different societies they can differ from one another considerably. It can also not be ruled out that at the genetic level certain characteristics can prevail in light of social selection or that they can randomly be due to genetic drift.

Based on these assumptions, researchers from the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research and the RAS Vavilov Institute of General Genetics looked at the impact of certain genes on social, psychological, and even economic phenomena.

The article that was published describes just one of the study's results. The study, which is not yet complete, focuses on the connection between life satisfaction and the genetic factors behind stress. It is clear thus far that statistics can be used to confirm the impact of MAOA, which regulates monoamine oxidase, on the subjective sense of well-being.

Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme that deactivates adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, that is, the substances that help regulate brain activity. They impact emotions such as happiness, bad moods, and depression, for example.

The gene that codes monoamine oxidase in a person can exist in different forms. One (4R) gives off a higher quantity of the enzyme, while another (3R) is less active and a smaller amount of monoamine oxidase forms in its carriers.

'We studied the link between forms of the gene and self-assessed well-being', said Head of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Eduard Ponarin. 'We were able to establish this relationship thanks firstly to research on DNA extracted from a biological sample (spit) of men from six Russian regions, and secondly to a comparison of their genotypes with their answers to questions concerning their sense of well-being, or conversely, the feeling of alarm and danger'.

The study showed that compared to carriers of the 4R allele, carriers of the 3R allele more commonly assess their situation as safe and often say that they are happier. These differences were reproduced in all of the regions under study and among all representatives of all ethnic groups involved in the study.

Genetics is not a strictly deterministic factor. Its impact on a subjective sense of happiness and well-being does not exceed 30%-50%, which is in line with previous research. The contribution of individual genes is estimated to be no higher than 4% or 5%. The influence of genes is probabilistic in nature and also connected to the environment in which an individual lives. The same type of gene can manifest itself differently depending on a person's living conditions.

National Research University Higher School of Economics

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