Gene Predisposes Some to Focus on the Negative

Dr. Rebecca Todd Assistant Professor University of British Columbia Department of Psychology Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability 4342A-2260 West Mall Vancouver, BC V6T Interview with:
Dr. Rebecca Todd
Assistant Professor
University of British Columbia
Department of Psychology
Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability
4342A-2260 West Mall
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4 What are the main findings of the study?

Answer: What we found, in essence, is that some individuals are genetically predisposed to see the world more darkly than others. We find that a common gene variant is linked to perceiving emotional events –especially negative ones –¬ more vividly than others. This gene variant has been previously linked (by other researchers) to emotional memory and the likelihood of experiencing intrusive, or “flashback” memories following traumatic experience. Our findings suggest that in healthy young adults this enhanced emotional memory may be because individuals are more likely to perceive what’s emotionally relevant in the first place. We’ve all heard of rose colored glasses, but this is more like gene-colored glasses, tinted a bit darkly. Were any of the findings unexpected?

Answer:  While we expected that carriers of this variant might be more sensitive to emotional qualities of the world, we were not sure whether this sensitivity would be focused on the negative. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Answer:  These findings shed new light on ways in which genetics ¬ combined with other factors such as life experience, culture, and mood ¬ can affect individual differences in emotional perception. While we didn’t study clinical populations, it’s relevant for clinicians and patients to know that different people will experience emotional events or stimuli in the environment very differently – two people might look at the same scene and walk away with a completely different impression. And that this has a genetic component and might influence the way they are affected by memories of it later on. Specifically, carriers of this gene variant might be more disturbed by memories of negative aspects of the scene. I think if we continue to do research on how this gene might influence emotional perception and memory in interaction with culture, and develop better understanding neural mechanisms underlying these effects, then we can ultimately be better able to predict and treat adverse responses to traumatic and other events. What future research would you suggest as a result of your study?

Answer:  We would like to investigate why this variant predisposes healthy young adults to focus on the negative in particular. Future research can also investigate how this genetic predisposition may interact with cultural influences in North Americans and other cultural groups. And finally, we want to look more closely at neural processes underlying the effect we found.


Genes for emotion-enhanced remembering are linked to enhanced perceiving

Emotionally enhanced memory and susceptibility to intrusive memories following trauma have been linked to a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene, which influences norepinephrine activity. Across 207 participants, we examined whether variations in this same gene are responsible for individual differences in affective influences on initial encoding, altering perceptual awareness. We examined the attentional blink (AB), an attentional impairment during rapid serial visual presentation, for negative arousing, positive arousing, and neutral target words.  The AB was overall reduced for emotional targets for ADRA2b deletion carriers and non-carriers alike, indicating ‘emotional sparing’ or reduction of the impairment for affectively salient words.  However, deletion carriers demonstrated a further more pronounced emotional sparing for negative targets. This demonstrates a contribution of genetics to individual differences in the emotional subjectivity of perception, which in turn may be linked to biases in later memory.

More Info: Rebecca M. Todd, Daniel J. Müller, Daniel H. Lee, Amanda Robertson, Tayler Eaton, Natalie Freeman, Daniela J. Palombo, Brian Levine, and Adam K. Anderson (in press).

Publication Name: Psych Science October 2013

Watch a video of Prof. Todd explaining her findings here:

Last Updated on October 11, 2013 by Marie Benz MD FAAD