There are some among us who are blessed with generous doses of optimism and self-esteem. Many of them fervently believe that they, and only they, are the sole masters of their destiny!
These individuals are blessed with three amazing "psychological tools" that help them to cope with stress -- optimism, self-esteem and "mastery" over life which is a conviction that one has control over one's own life.
AdvertisementNow, for the first time, scientists from UCLA have actually identified a gene which is responsible for these three amazing " tools." The gene was identified to be the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). The hormone Oxytocin, which functions as a brain neurotransmitter has also been referred to as the "love" or "cuddle" hormone.
The study was carried out on 326 people who underwent self-assessments on optimism, self-esteem and mastery through questionnaires provided to them. DNA obtained from saliva samples were analyzed in UCLA's genotyping center where the variants in OXTR genes were carefully studied. A clinical psychologists' tool was used to identify those people at risk for mental problems, such as depression.
At a particular location, the oxytocin receptor gene can either have an "A" (adenine) variant or a "G" (guanine) variant. Studies have indicated that those with two "A" nucleotides (AA) or at least one "A" variant along with one "G" variant (AG) are more prone to stress, have poorer social skills and are more likely to suffer worse mental health outcomes. They also have low levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and are more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.
The work is available in the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS) in the Sept.13 edition.
Shelley E. Taylor, professor of psychology at UCLA had always believed that there had to be a gene that controlled psychological attributes. "I have been looking for this gene for a few years, and it is not the gene I expected," she remarked.
Lead study author Shimon Saphire-Bernstein, a research scholar in psychology under Taylor said, "This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to report a gene associated with psychological resources. However, we wanted to go further and see if psychological resources explain why the OXTR gene is tied to depressive symptoms. We found that the effect of OXTR on depressive symptoms was fully explained by psychological resources."
The study has important implications. Whether genes influence behavior or not is a topic kept alive by skeptics. This study has actually confirmed the role of genes in influencing the way a person reacts to a situation.
However genes are not the end-all of the way a person handles stress as there is plenty of scope for change through environmental factors such as a happy childhood, good family and friends, all of which play a role in shaping the coping ability of a person.
External influences affect OXTR's function and their expression including other genes. Therefore genes can, at best be considered one set of contributing factors that contribute to the psychological illnesses.
Prof Taylor finishes on a very optimistic note she says that even those with "A" variant can learn skills to overcome depression. These people could benefit immensely by learning to be more optimistic and gaining a better sense of self esteem and by gaining mastery over the way they conduct their lives.
Oxytocin has for long been associated with bonding especially between a mother and her new born. The nurturing that a child receives is extremely essential in not only determining his ability to cope with life events but also in dealing with the health risks he may harbor.
It may be a good idea to identify other genes and environmental factors that control human behavior.