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Genetic Variation May Influence Impulsiveness

Genetic Variation May Influence ImpulsivenessA multinational research team has discovered a genetic variation that may be a predisposing factor for violent impulsive behavior.

Backed by the National Institutes of Health, the team found that a genetic variant of a brain receptor molecule may contribute to impulsive behavior when people who carry it are under the influence of alcohol.

A report of the findings, which include human genetic analyses and gene “knockout” studies in animals, appears in the current issue of Nature.

“Impulsivity, or action without foresight, is a factor in many pathological behaviors including suicide, aggression, and addiction,” said senior author David Goldman, M.D., chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

“But it is also a trait that can be of value if a quick decision must be made or in situations where risk-taking is favored.”

In collaboration with researchers in Finland and France,  Goldman and colleagues studied a sample of violent criminal offenders in Finland. The hallmark of the violent crimes committed by individuals in the study sample was that they were spontaneous and purposeless.

“We conducted this study in Finland because of its unique population history and medical genetics,” said Goldman.

“Modern Finns are descended from a relatively small number of original settlers, which has reduced the genetic complexity of diseases in that country. Studying the genetics of violent criminal offenders within Finland increased our chances of finding genes that influence impulsive behavior.”

The researchers sequenced DNA of the impulsive subjects and compared those sequences with DNA from an equal number of non-impulsive Finnish control subjects.

They found that a single DNA change that blocks a gene known as HTR2B was predictive of highly impulsive behavior. HTR2B encodes one type of serotonin receptor in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known to influence many behaviors, including impulsivity.

“Interestingly, we found that the genetic variant alone was insufficient to cause people to act in such ways,” Goldman said.

“Carriers of the HTR2B variant who had committed impulsive crimes were male, and all had become violent only while drunk from alcohol, which itself leads to behavioral disinhibition.”

According to NIAAA Acting Director Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., “Discovery of a genetic variant which predicts impulsive behavior under certain conditions in one human population may have much wider implications.

“The interaction with alcohol intoxication is interesting, as is the apparent involvement of a neurotransmitter pathway that has been regarded as important in addictions and other behavior.”

The researchers then conducted studies in mice and found that when the equivalent HTR2B gene is knocked out or turned off, mice also become more impulsive. Studies of any alcohol interaction in the knockout mice are ongoing.

Taken together, the findings could lead to a better understanding of some aspects of impulsivity and ultimately may lead to strategies for diagnosing and treating some clinically important manifestations of impulsive behavior. The researchers caution, however, that impulsivity is a complex trait with multiple genetic and environmental causes.

“Although relatively common in Finland, the genetic variant we identified in this study is unlikely to explain a large fraction of the overall variance in impulsive behaviors, as there are likely to be many pathways to impulsivity,” Goldman said.

Source: NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Genetic Variation May Influence Impulsiveness

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Genetic Variation May Influence Impulsiveness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Dec 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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