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“Liberal gene” identified

Oct. 28, 2010
Courtesy of University of California - San Diego
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers have for the first time iden­ti­fied a gene that they say can in­flu­ence po­lit­i­cal out­look. 

Past stud­ies had found that po­lit­i­cal views have a genetic comp­o­nent, but had­n’t point­ed out ac­tu­al genes in­volved. The new re­search from the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia and Har­vard Uni­vers­ity in­di­cates that a var­i­ant of a gene called DRD4 makes peo­ple more likely to be lib­er­al, if they al­so had many friends as tene­nagers.

DRD4 codes for the pro­duc­tion of mo­lec­u­lar struc­tures in the brain that fa­cil­i­tates trans­mis­sion of the chem­i­cal dopamine among brain cells. Dopamine is a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter, or a brain sig­nal­ing chem­i­cal.

Ap­pear­ing in the cur­rent edi­tion of The Jour­nal of Pol­i­tics, the re­search fo­cused on 2,000 sub­jects from The Na­tional Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Ad­o­les­cent Health, a fed­er­ally funded U.S. proj­ect that sur­veyed health in rela­t­ion to a range of be­hav­iors. By match­ing ge­net­ic in­forma­t­ion with maps of the sub­jects’ so­cial net­works, the re­search­ers found that peo­ple with a spe­cif­ic var­i­ant of DRD4 were more likely to be lib­er­al as adults, but only if they had an ac­tive so­cial life in ad­o­les­cence.

Dopamine is a mes­sen­ger chem­i­cal af­fect­ing pro­cesses that con­trol move­ment, emo­tion­al re­sponse, and abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence pleas­ure and pain. DRD4 codes for the prod­uc­tion of a re­cep­tor, or mo­le­cu­lar gateway, that re­gu­lates do­pa­mine trans­mis­sion.

Pre­vi­ous re­search has iden­ti­fied a con­nec­tion be­tween a var­i­ant of DRD4 and novelty-seeking be­hav­ior. This be­hav­ior has pre­vi­ously been as­so­ci­at­ed with per­son­al­ity traits re­lat­ed to po­lit­i­cal lib­er­alism, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors not­ed.

Lead re­searcher James H. Fowl­er of Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Die­go and col­leagues hy­poth­e­sized that peo­ple with the novelty-seeking gene var­i­ant would be more in­ter­est­ed in learn­ing about their friends’ points of view. Thus, they might be ex­posed to a wid­er va­ri­e­ty of so­cial norms and lifestyles, which could fos­ter a lib­er­al view­point. 

It’s “the cru­cial in­ter­ac­tion of two fac­tors – the ge­net­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion and the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tion of hav­ing many friends in ad­o­les­cence – that is as­so­ci­at­ed with be­ing more lib­er­al,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote, adding that this held true re­gard­less of eth­nicity, cul­ture, sex or age.

Fowl­er said he hopes “more schol­ars will beg­in to ex­plore the po­ten­tial in­ter­ac­tion of bi­ol­o­gy and en­vi­ronment.” He added that he would like to see sci­en­tists try to rep­li­cate the find­ings “in dif­fer­ent popula­t­ions and age groups.”


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Researchers have for the first time identified a specific gene that they say influences political outlook. Past studies had found that genes can color our political views in general, the scientists said, but hadn’t pointed out actual genes involved. The new research from the University of California and Harvard University indicates that a variant of a gene called DRD4 makes people more likely to be liberal, if they also had many friends as tenenagers. DRD4 codes for the production of a molecular structure in the brain that facilitates transmission of the chemical dopamine among brain cells. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or a brain signaling chemical. Appearing in the current edition of The Journal of Politics, the research focused on 2,000 subjects from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a federally funded U.S. project that surveyed health in relation to a range of behaviors. By matching genetic information with maps of the subjects’ social networks, the researchers found that people with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to be liberal as adults, but only if they had an active social life in adolescence. Dopamine is a messenger chemical affecting processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain. Previous research has identified a connection between a variant of this gene and novelty-seeking behavior. This behavior has previously been associated with personality traits related to political liberalism, the investigators noted. Lead researcher James H. Fowler of University of California, San Diego and colleagues hypothesized that people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends’ points of view. Thus, they might be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which could foster a liberal viewpoint. It’s “the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal,” the investigators wrote, adding that this held true regardless of ethnicity, culture, sex or age. Fowler said he hopes “more scholars will begin to explore the potential interaction of biology and environment.” He added that he would like to see scientists try to replicate the findings “in different populations and age groups.”