The Winter Olympics Call Attention to the Genetics of Risk Taking

The Winter Olympics have brought upon us a generation of seemingly fearless athletes intent on advancing through extreme feats such as snowboarding and slopestyle and half-pipe skiing. The intensity with which these athletes train to ultimately endanger their lives for the sake of the sport truly makes us wonder, what is the inherent difference between these risk taking competitors and the rest of the masses content with simply watching them on TV? The answer may verily lie within our DNA.

Debate over the environment being the sole mold of our personalities is shifted in this argument by a recent genetics study revealing specific genes. These genes are responsible for an individual’s tendency for sensation seeking by pursuing thrilling experiences and taking risks to that effect.

The gene activity promoting risk taking has been linked to the varying levels of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is very involved in reward-motivated behavior. Additionally, dopamine is associated with the pleasure centers of the brain so the increased release of the neurotransmitter by athletes participating in risky sports promotes their activities further.

The intrigue of such genetics studies however, lies within the evident difference in how dopamine is processed by those who are risk takers and those who are satisfied with just watching. The answer to this lies in a variation of the DRD4 gene which is closely related to the function of dopamine and its connection to risky behavior.

A sophomore clinical lab science major Kerianne Fuoco, said, “It is not surprising that there is a genetic basis to risk taking behavior since other aspects of individuals’ personalities, like temperament, have already been discovered to have a biological link.” She added, “It will be interesting to see if more evidence for the connection between the DRD4 gene and risk taking is revealed as further experiments come to fruition.”

Dr. Dorothy Lobo, biology professor, said, “I am not at all surprised to see that there is a link between behavior and genetics in this way. There are many behavioral traits that have been found to have both environmental triggers and genetic predispositions, including eating disorders, addictions, and other diseases. My niece was always more of a risk-taker when she was a toddler, and she grew up to love roller coasters and other wild rides (just like her mother), but not like anyone else in our immediate family. So, to see that there is an actual gene that has been found to contribute to this trait is really interesting – I’m sure my niece has it!” 

It is important to consider these studies because they assist in explaining why certain people have the tendencies to make specific choices while others do not. Sophomore biology major Priyal Patel, said, “I think this study is very interesting especially since I am a biology major who loves trying out new sports. The experiments and surveys lead to the discovery of the DRD4 gene and I believe that as scientists, we are a little closer to figuring out how genes have the ability to shape up our personalities and behaviors.”

It is precisely this influence of genetics upon behavior that helps to explain risky behaviors that are not just relative to sport but also those that prove to be harmful and addictive. The nature of dopamine release is centered around the fact that an increase of dopamine makes us feel good. Therefore, the variance in genes like DRD4 could also be responsible for destructive behaviors such as gambling or doing drugs.

For dangerous routes of life such as these, it is extremely important for progressing research to fully explain the mechanisms by which we are prompted to make decisions so that we may be able to create viable prevention methods that allow us to save ourselves from the many destructive paths of life. The extent of this progressing research will be observed in the coming years.

IMAGE TAKEN from nyt.com