Lacking in optimism and self-esteem? It may be genetic

Scientists identify gene’s link to optimism & self-esteem

By Ian Birch

If you are lacking in optimism and low in self-esteem at the moment - it could be genetic.  Scientists have identified for the first time a particular gene's link to optimism, self-esteem and "mastery," the belief that one has control over one's own life.

Low Self Esteem"I have been looking for this gene for a few years, and it is not the gene I expected.  I knew there had to be a gene for these psychological resources." said Shelley E. Taylor, from the University of California at Los Angeles, senior author of the new research.

The gene Taylor and her colleagues identified is the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Oxytocin is a hormone that increases in response to stress and is associated with good social skills such as empathy and enjoying the company of others.

 "This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to report a gene associated with psychological resources," said lead study author Shimon Saphire-Bernstein, a doctoral student in psychology in Taylor's laboratory. "However, we wanted to go further and see if psychological resources explain why the OXTR gene is tied to depressive symptoms." Which they do.

At a particular location, the oxytocin receptor gene has two versions: an "A" (adenine) variant and a "G" (guanine) variant. Several studies have suggested that people with at least one "A" variant have an increased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills and worse mental health outcomes.

The findings are "very strong, highly significant," Taylor said. The study has important implications.  She stressed, however, that while genes may predict behaviour, they do not determine it:

"This gene is one factor that influences psychological resources and depression, but there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well. A supportive childhood, good relationships, friends and even other genes also play a role in the development of psychological resources, and these factors also play a very substantial role in whether people become depressed.”

An increase in oxytocin tends to lead to more social behaviour, especially under stress and especially in females, earlier research has indicated.  OXTR likely interacts with other genes. Taylor and her colleagues plan to continue to search for additional genes that predict behavioural responses to stress and to study how they interact.

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