A certain gene may impact sensitivity to emotional information

A new study has found that a certain genetic variation may impact emotional sensitivity.

“We realized that people who have this variant literally see the world slightly differently,” said UBC psychology professor and the study’s lead researcher, Rebecca Todd.

Todd worked on a previous study at the University of Toronto. The university collaborated with the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health to examine the connection between genes and emotions. After, Todd moved to UBC and continued studying how a certain gene impacts emotional sensitivity. Todd and her team recently found that people with this gene variant perceive “emotionally relevant” things more sharply.

For the study, two groups were asked to estimate how much visual noise covered a positive or negative image while an fMRI scanned their brains. One group had the genetic variant and the other did not.

“What they had to do was say how much noise there was on top of [the image] with the idea that if they say there is less noise, than the picture underneath is perceived more vividly,” said Todd. "In general, people find that effect more for emotionally relevant images, so we call that emotionally enhanced vividness.”

Those who carried the gene variant estimated lower levels of noise on either positive or negative images, according to Todd. In other words, carriers of the variant perceived something that is emotionally relevant more vividly.

Todd considers that having this variation may be a benefit in some cases.

“Maybe you’re in the military … that can be where being really more likely to perceive emotionally relevant elements in the environment would be a real advantage,” said Todd. “On the positive side, you know, I think [of] the people who carry this as being sort of much more artistic. Like artists, in the way they see the world."

In terms of who has the variant, this particular study didn’t find evidence that certain groups of people are more likely to be carriers than others.

“We don’t find any difference between men and women,” said Todd. “We’ve been looking at Caucasian populations in Toronto and in Vancouver, so we don’t actually know about its distribution so well in other ethnic groups.”

When asked what kind of implications this research may have, Todd speculated that it could impact the approach to treating trauma.

“Because of different, sort of, genetic predispositions, different people will respond to trauma very different and they may also respond to treatment very differently,” said Todd. “I think it leads to a much less one-size fits-all approach to treatment.”