New Health Technology Integrating Genetics and Psychology

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Are you a confident extrovert or a shy introvert? Do you take risks? Is your life organized? Do you get angry easily? Over 20,000 scientific papers show that our genes influence our personality. Some behavioral geneticists argue that up to 60 percent of our personality is inborn, while the rest develops due to environmental factors.

This does not, however, imply that we do not have any influence on our behavior. By understanding our personality traits better, we can learn to navigate our lives in a potentially more efficient way. Now, there is technology available that can help us integrate genetics and psychology with other aspects of our lives, such as relationships, work, and general well-being.

The First DNA-Matched Flatshares

Although 99.6 percent of our genetic code is identical, we are all unique. Although less than 1 percent of our genes contain differences, these differences are what make each of us special. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) represent the most common gene mutations that contribute to our uniqueness. SNPs affect our hormone and neurotransmitter production levels. Since hormones have shown to have an influence on our behavior, we can hypothesize it is SNPs that give our behavior a strong genetic link. For instance, high levels of the hormone oxytocin are more likely to be found in an affectionate person, while high dopamine levels have been related to risk-takers.

Commercial genetic tests are now becoming available that can analyze your genes related to hormones and neurotransmitters, including dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These tests can help you learn more about your genetic behavioral disposition. Gemetrics and LifeNome are two companies offering DNA-personality tests that give you a chance to explore your genetics as it pertains to the potential role they play in your social behavior, creativity, memory performance, as well as your learning style.

The latest findings of behavioral genetics also inspired an idea to use DNA-personality testing when looking for a suitable housemate. SpareRoom, an apartment and house-sharing website that operates in the United States and the United Kingdom, is introducing a new service to help you find a roommate that will match your DNA profile. The company is building on technology developed by Karmagenes, a Swiss-based startup that combines DNA and psychometric testing.

Karmagenes, whose motto is “Meet yourself,” built its health technology using the findings from published research. Subscribers of SpareRoom are given a self-testing kit to provide a sample of their saliva. Users also take an online psychometric questionnaire. In the Karmagenes lab, your DNA gets extracted from your salivary epithelial cells. Your SNPs are identified and analyzed using bioinformatics. The researchers from Karmagenes then apply a special algorithm to link SNPs and genes with different behavioral characteristics.

The resulting final report covers 14 personality characteristics—including optimism, confidence, and stress tolerance—and indicates how these characteristics are influenced by your genes. SpareRoom’s intention is to use Karmagenes findings to advise people on what type of personalities they are best matched with, minimizing the chances of a disharmonious cohabitation.

A New Era of Genomic Psychology

Some experts argue that if you know somebody’s genetic makeup in addition to his or her life history, you can understand the person’s behavior better. Using this individual-specific information, a psychologist could, in theory, devise more effective mental health options. With new scientific and technological discoveries, traditional psychology is transforming into genomic psychology. The genomic approach looks at the interactions between genetic and environmental factors at a molecular level—it goes beyond heritability.

Professor Turhan Canli of Stony Brook University, New York, argues that in the future genomic analysis could help psychologists not only explain but also predict and possibly alter human behavior. His research is focused on biological mechanisms that shape individual differences.

For instance, his research group has been exploring possible links for depression. They have begun mapping neural correlates of the interaction between the serotonin genotype and stress. The serotonin transporter gene is located on chromosome 17, and we carry one copy from each parent. A person can have two short variants of this gene, one short and one long variant, or two long variants. Canli’s group used an fMRI to measure brain activation of areas related to stress and depression (the amygdala and hippocampus) and the absolute levels of blood flow at rest in people with and without a history of depression. They matched the results with the person’s genotype.

They found that in carriers of the short variant of the chromosome 17 serotonin gene, life stress was associated with higher resting activation. In contrast, in carriers of the long variant, more stress resulted in lower resting activation. Canli concluded that life stress might have a different effect on people depending on their serotonin gene expression. A de-sensitizing effect can be observed in carriers with the long variant, while carriers of the short allele get more sensitized by stress.

Gene polymorphisms have been explored in other areas of psychology as well. Associations were also found in schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood and anxiety disorders. Human genome research appears to be providing important insights into our behavior.

Limitations of Behavioral Genetics

Although behavioral genetics is contributing to an important aspect of behavioral research, science cannot yet make the claim that our DNA is our destiny. Scientists might be able to breed mice that are either brave or fearful, however, there are many complexities in gene-environment interactions that make people more difficult to “categorize” in regards to predicting their behavior. No one can really know what kind of a person you will become and what you will do simply based on your genes. This notion is further supported by the emergence of epigenetics, which argues that genes can be switched on and off by external or environmental factors.

Nonetheless, new technology might offer an exciting opportunity to gain insights into our psyche. As this health technology evolves it is important that these advances do not get hijacked and used in unethical ways (e.g., to hurt certain groups of people or increase disadvantages for those already at-risk). Many people find the similarities between behavioral genetics and eugenics disturbing. Experts agree that we need to be aware of both the potential benefits and abuses of novel technology linked to behavioral genetics and apply the field’s advancements in a conscientious and vigilant way.

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