Researchers Discover a Genetic Component to Altruism
By Lauren Migliore

The winter holidays are upon us once again, a time for parties, family and togetherness—and a time for peace and giving; which is no wonder why charities need and request more contributions during the holidays. Will you be one to donate?
The answer may lie in your genes.

Researchers at the University of Bonn can likely predict whether you’re the altruistic type. A new study, “Investigating the Genetic Basis of Altruism: The Role of the COMT Val158Met Polymorphism,” published in the October 2010 issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, has revealed a minute change in a particular gene that is associated with significantly higher altruistic behavior. People with this change were shown to donate twice as much to charity, on average, than those without. In the study, Dr. Martin Reuter and his fellow researchers administered a computer retention test to approximately 100 participants, who were asked to memorize a series of numbers and then repeat them as correctly as possible afterward. As a reward for participating, they received a sum of five euros. When the study was over, the participants had the option to keep their money or donate any portion of it to a charitable cause. They were told that the donation would be made freely and anonymously, though researchers behind the scenes were able to keep track of donations.
Participants were also asked, before the study commenced, to undergo a cheek swab. Researchers were able to extract DNA for genetic analyses from the cells sampled. The focus was on one gene—the COMT (catechol-O-methlytransferase) which controls the catechol-O-methyltransferase enzyme in its functioning. This enzyme is used to metabolize catecholamines, which inactivate certain messengers in the brain. It is also heavily linked to dopaminergic and adrenergic/nonadrenergic neurotransmission, or endporphins. COMT functions by metabolizing dopamine and freeing receptors in the brain for the binding of endorphins to the u-opioid receptors, which ultimately, is also known to lead to pain relief. The more potent the COMT enzyme that is functioning in the body, the more dopamine will be metabolized, and more endorphins are able to bind.

Furthermore, there are two variants of the COMT gene: COMT-Val and COMT-Met. The difference varies by just a single amino acid, and both versions are present in equal amounts in the population. But here’s the thing: The enzyme associated with the COMT-Val variants works up to four times more effectively at inactivating dopamine in the brain.
Researchers found through the study that by virtue of having the COMT-Val gene variation, a person would donate twice as much money on average as would someone with the COMT-Met difference. Data has also confirmed that dopamine is involved in controlling social behavior in animals and humans. Thus, the messenger, together with the substances such as the neuropeptide vasopressin, influence bonding and positive emotionality. While researchers were aware that altruistic behavior is hereditary, this is the first time that there has been a clear distinction in determining a specific gene.

Alongside these findings linking heredity and altruism, scientists have also questioned where exactly altruism originates in the brain. In a study from Duke University, neuroscientist Scott Huettel and his colleagues at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center found a connection between altruism and the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) of the brain. The pSTC is concerned with anticipating the intentions and activities of other people. According to Huettel, this portion of the brain has to do with perceiving stimuli in an environment that could impact others—a crouching tiger about to jump on a fellow hunter, for example.

In the study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 45 volunteers while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. >>SUBSCRIBE TO READ CONCLUSION<<

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