Worrier vs. Warrior: Performing Under Stress

Have you ever wondered what separates the students who grow clammy moments before a test from the students that look as if they’ve just won the lottery? A 2009 study in Taiwan delved deep into the human genome to discover what causes certain people to come undone under stressful circumstances, while others perform best under such circumstances. The researchers had a subject pool of 779 tenth-grade students from three different regions in Taiwan. These students had just taken the Basic Competency Test, a test that determines which (if any) high school the students will be admitted to. Only 39 percent of the test takers pass, while the other students go to vocational schools.

This test was the perfect environment for Chun-Yen Chang and his research team to examine reactions to competitive environments. The researchers took blood samples from the subject pool and then matched the student’s genotype to his or her Basic Competency Test score.

The researchers were looking specifically at the COMT gene, which carries the code to produce Catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT), an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the region in our brain that helps us plan, make decisions, and anticipate consequences. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior and also works to change the firing rate of neurons.

Catechol-O-methyl transferase is important because we don’t want too much dopamine in our brain and, by removing the dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps us maintain stable mental function. However, not all COMT genes carry the same code. One variant of the gene builds an enzyme that slowly removes dopamine, while the other variant builds an enzyme that quickly removes dopamine. We all carry the COMT gene, but we have one variant or the other. Some people have a combination of the two.

So, with that super-speedy neuroscience lesson, let’s return to the study. Chang, et al. noticed that the Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes scored, on average, 8 percent lower than did the students with the fast-acting enzymes. But what do these results mean?

These results are indicative of a correlation between a student’s ability to succeed in high-pressure conditions and their variant of the COMT gene. However, these results do not speak to an individual’s ability to succeed academically in relation to their gene variant. Prior research has been done to examine the COMT gene variants’ effects on intelligence, and the results suggest that those with the slow-acting enzyme seem to have a cognitive advantage over those with the fast-acting enzyme.

Because the slow-acting enzyme clears the dopamine from the prefrontal cortex slowly, the overall dopamine level in the cortex is relatively high, allowing the prefrontal cortex of the individual with the slow-acting variant to function with a higher accuracy. The fast-acting enzyme, conversely, results in an overall deficit of dopamine, reducing the activity of the prefrontal cortex and putting the individual with the fast-acting enzyme at a cognitive disadvantage.

So how do these fast-acting enzyme individuals perform better on the national exam when they are at a cognitive disadvantage? The slow-acting enzyme, while it seems ideal, is a double-edged sword. It works to enhance one’s cognitive abilities by keeping an individual’s dopamine levels higher, but that is only beneficial in a low-stress environment. As soon as the environment is rife with many competing stimuli, as is the case in stressful situations, the enzyme can’t process the dopamine fast enough as it comes in, resulting in a harmful excess of dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex. This dopaminergic excess contributes to feelings of stress or excessive worrying, which can negatively impact one’s performance on tests in high-stress conditions. Those with the fast-acting enzyme are able to thrive in high-stress conditions because it is only in those high-stress conditions that they reach an ideal amount of dopamine.

Because of the behavioral effects of these variants, these genes have come to be known as the Warrior and the Worrier Gene. The Warrior Gene refers to the fast-acting variant because it allows individuals with the gene to thrive in stressful and competitive conditions, such as a battlefield. The Worrier Gene refers to the slow-acting variant since it causes individuals with the gene to become anxious and over-stimulated in battle conditions.

But before you go freaking out about being either a Worrier or a Warrior, realize that this is just one study in a developing field of research. Just because you felt a bit anxious during that last midterm of yours doesn’t mean you have the Worrier Gene and are doomed to a life of failure in competitive environments. And just because you aced that last midterm doesn’t mean you have the Warrior Gene, and are doomed to be at a cognitive disadvantage. More research still has to be done!

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