Saturday, February 9, 2013

NY Times Article on COMT Gene

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
The New York Times ran an article a few days ago about why some students succeed in stressful situations (ie standardized tests) and why others fall apart with worries and anxieties.  This division has been traced back to two different alleles for the COMT gene.  This gene produces the enzyme to clear dopamine from the prefrontal cortex to allow our brain to think, plan, make decisions, and anticipate consequences clearly.  There are two variants, one clears dopamine slowly while the other clears it rapidly.  In a non-stressed environment, test subjects with the slow removing enzymes performed better, indicating that a little stress can provide a cognitive advantage.  However, when 779 Taiwan students, having recently completed the Basic Competency Test (a high stakes placement exam), were tested for the variant, the data showed a very different result.  Students with the slow removing enzyme scored 8& lower than the students with fast acting genes.  In a more stressful environment, the slow removing enzymes were overwhelmed with dopamine in the prefrontal cortex and unable to remove enough.  This led to the students with these slow removing enzymes (nicknamed Worriers) becoming stressed, worried, anxious, and in the end, not performing as well as the students with rapid removing enzymes (nicknamed Warriors).  The article goes on to explain new attitudes to short term stress after studies found that professionals use stress in a more positive, energizing manner than amateurs.  I found it most interesting that students could actually be taught to see stress as beneficial, and thereby score higher on exams.  

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