Personal genomics as a psychological mirror

Psychologist Steven Pinker explores the impact of personal genome sequencing services and how this information may help us understand our behaviours and preferences in an article for The New York Times.

Pinker is known for advocating that many psychological traits and cognitive abilities are highly heritable. He’s recently volunteered to have his entire genome sequenced and made freely available on the internet and so he explores what this information can actually tell us about ourselves.

One aspect of this information is that it can indicate the future course of your life – such as the vastly increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease if you’re the carrier of two ApoE Œµ4 alleles.

Like James Watson, Pinker has opted not to find out his ApoE Œµ4 status, preferring to avoid any additional “existential dread” that the knowledge might cause.

However, other genes predict weaker tendencies and ‘cognitive genetics’, the science of how genes interact with our mental functions, is beginning to blossom:

Dopamine is the molecular currency in several brain circuits associated with wanting, getting satisfaction and paying attention. The gene for one kind of dopamine receptor, DRD4, comes in several versions. Some of the variants (like the one I have) have been associated with “approach related” personality traits like novelty seeking, sensation seeking and extraversion.

A gene for another kind of receptor, DRD2, comes in a version that makes its dopamine system function less effectively. It has been associated with impulsivity, obesity and substance abuse. Still another gene, COMT, produces an enzyme that breaks down dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the home of higher cognitive functions like reasoning and planning. If your version of the gene produces less COMT, you may have better concentration but might also be more neurotic and jittery.

The article covers a great deal of ground, aiming to educate about some of the basic principles of genetics as well as tackling the implications of knowing more about our own genetic codes.

By the way, if you’re interested in a thorough grounding in the science of behavioural and cognitive genetics, I highly recommend the somewhat expensive but very well written and remarkably comprehensive book Behavioural Genetics.

Link to NYT piece ‘My Genome, My Self’.

3 thoughts on “Personal genomics as a psychological mirror”

  1. Companies that sell personal genome sequences for comercial purposes, and try to gain publicity form popular people who advocate this trend of personalized medicine, are based on tests that are not realible enough (at least according to existing ways of detecting biomarkers), and even for Alzheimer´s disease and the so called alipoproteins polymorphisms or SNPs.
    I can´t remember now but an american company which sold tests for this clinical condition had to stop selling it for uncertainity results.
    There are no clear data on what those tests can really achive and existing associations can change in the future and some hyped statements are misleading the public.

  2. That book looks pretty good… but yeah, expensive, and the only copies I can find in New York libraries are the 2nd and 3rd edition– the latter having been published in 1997.
    How much different would you suppose the spiffy 11-year-younger 5th edition is? I don’t have too much technical knowledge; I’m just looking for a potentially detailed overview. I imagine it couldn’t possibly be as comprehensive, but have there been any fundamental breakthroughs this past decade regarding behavioral and cognitive genetics?

  3. If his genome is posted online, doesn’t that mean that everyone can simply go there and look whether he has two ApoE Œµ4 alleles?

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