The Role of Genetics in Stress Response – Would You Want to Know Your Workforce’s Genetic Strengths?

After a couple of less detailed posts, this one’s more science-y; I’ll look at a specific gene, how it relates to our response to stress and what the broader implications might be as we discover more relationships between our genome and our performance. My gene of choice is COMT, because it’s well studied, we understand what it does and it has two different types (“alleles”) that have a clear impact on performance.

The Science Bit – COMT and Dopamine

A representation of the COMT enzyme
A representation of the COMT enzyme

The COMT gene is the template for Catechol-O-methyltransferase (aka COMT – if that name means much to you then you’re a better person than I!). The COMT protein is an enzyme that degrades catecholamines (another name not to worry about). Catecholamines include – and this is where things start to get more relevant – dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  The latter two are famed for their role in the “fight or flight” response to threat, but here we’re focusing on dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (i.e. a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells) which plays a role across a number of functions, including motor control, motivation, reward, arousal and cognition. For this article, we’re going to narrow down again to look at just one of these functions; cognition. The relationship of dopamine with cognition is described as an “inverted U-shape” in the literature, but I call it a “Goldilocks” relationship – if there is either too little or too much dopamine in the Prefrontal Cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for “executive functions” – our most advanced cognitive processing) then cognitive performance decreases.

The inverted U relationship
The inverted U relationship

To trim the scope of this article down further, let’s look only at one of the environments where dopamine is released – when someone is under stress. I’ve chosen stress because it applies both in the workplace and more generally, it’s a time when people’s behaviour varies greatly and people often comment on others’ ability to cope with stress. Dopamine is released both in physical and  non-physical stressful situations in animals and humans.

That leaves us here: 1) dopamine is released during stress; 2) the COMT gene produces COMT enzyme, which breaks down dopamine; 3) dopamine has an impact on cognition (where too little or too much hinders performance).

Where Differences Arise

This all interests me because the COMT gene has a number of different alleles, resulting in the creation of different types of COMT enzyme in different people. The best studied of these are two alleles that vary by only one nucleotide (the building blocks of DNA) within the whole gene – one allele has guanine, while the other has alanine. This results in a difference of one amino acid (the building blocks of protein) in the COMT protein, giving two different and functional versions of the enzyme – one containing the amino acid valine (which I’ll call the Val variant), while the other contains methionine (which I’ll refer to as Met). These alleles are co-dominant, so people can be Val homozygotes (two Val alleles, producing all Val variants), Met homozygotes (two Met alleles, producing all Met variants) or heterozygotes (one Val allele, one Met allele, producing both variants).

You’ve probably seen this coming – the Val and Met variants of the COMT enzyme breakdown dopamine at different rates; in fact the Val variant gets through dopamine at 3-4 times the speed of its Met counterpart.

Different Genotypes for Different Situations

Following the logic through, the type of COMT enzymes that you have will play a role in when you will perform best. If we simplify level of stress into high stress and low stress situations and look at those with Val or Met respond, then you end up with these four scenarios:

  • low stress + Val = low level of dopamine broken down quickly = too little dopamine = low performance
  • low stress + Met = low level of dopamine broken down slowly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Val = high level of dopamine broken down quickly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Met = high level of dopamine broken down slowly = too much dopamine = low performance

And these scenarios aren’t just logical, but evidenced. Under normal conditions, Val homozygotes perform worse than Met homozygotes at standard tests of executive function. Under stressful situations, either adjusting the scenario or the task (here it’s making people flick between different tasks) Val homozygotes perform better.

This (massively simplified) analysis would split people into three groups – those who perform best in stressful situations (Val homozygotes), those who perform best in relaxed situations (Met homozygotes) and those who perform best in the middle ground (heterozygotes). The two extreme groups are sometimes referred to as “warriors” and “worriers” if you want to have a look for some more detail on this – though they’re not names I’m fond of because they would seem to infer that being a Val homozygote is better than being a Met homozygote.

Just Part of the Picture

There are a lot of different factors in play...
There are a lot of different factors in play…

Before moving on to what this might mean for the workplace, it’s worth explaining how drastically I’ve simplified the above. Firstly, there are a huge number of other factors that impact on dopamine sensitivity and absorption – for example, oestrogen can increase dopamine levels, there are a number of other enzymes which play a role in breaking down dopamine (monoamine oxidase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, in case you’re interested) and there are a number of other steps in determining dopamine levels (sensitivity to environment, creation, receptors etc). Secondly, there are a wide range of other factors that determine how someone responds to a “stressful” situation (not least whether you actually interpret that situation stressful). Thirdly, the rate of dopamine breakdown by COMT enzyme has wider effects than just moderating our response to stress, e.g. the Val variant is linked with alcoholism. Finally, there are a number of other versions of the COMT gene (and thus the COMT enzyme), like rs737865 and rs165599.

What Does This Mean in the Present?

quotescover-PNG-39Primarily, this acts as a reminder that we need to be aware of individual differences. I think the COMT-stress relationship is a great reminder of this for a few reasons. The fact that we’ve found two alleles which  impact on our performance provides a clear line of sight between cause (genotype) and effect (whether you perform better under stress or under normal circumstances). People often think of individual differences as “wishy-washy” things, but this is a good reminder that they’re not necessarily the kind of things that can just be changed overnight. Stress is an area where this kind of thinking is very common – people are often very derogatory about those who “can’t cope under pressure” and “pull it together” is a fairly common refrain, but this shows it’s not as simple or straightforward as that.

I also like the example because it highlights that differences between us give us different strengths and weaknesses – you can’t characterise either of the COMT alleles as fundamentally better than the other. If we assume that everything else is the same, then those with Val variants perform better than those with Met variants under stress, but worse under normal circumstances. Those with Val variants are more likely to be seen as a “man for a crisis”, while those with Met variants are more likely to be perceived as self-motivated.

If we understand the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and others then we can increase the chances of us all finding our niche – or shaping ourselves to fit a desired niche.

If You Could Know Everyone’s COMT Genotype, Would You Want To?

Before reading on, think about the question above; there’s a lot to consider.

Genetic-discriminationThe advantages of knowing are obvious: an increased ability to put people in a better position to succeed and be happy; an improvement in the performance of your teams; and an enhancement to your company’s approach to recruitment. If the opportunity to access this information was available, it would be very difficult to resist. Imagine recruiting and being able to complement CVs, competencies, test results, interviews etc. with genetic information that provided an indicator of a candidate’s likely success – would you say no?

But the negatives are also powerful: as highlighted above, we only see part of the picture in relation the allele-outcome relationship; we also miss the impact of experiences on people; there’s a risk of putting people into a “box”; we’d likely remove diversity in skills from the workforce (with all the related negatives); and the more difficult to define, but very uncomfortable, concern about what discrimination means in this context.

I don’t know if I could resist – and there are already accusations that some companies are using other tools in slightly disturbing ways (e.g. this interview, where Clive Boddy says that he was told a corporate bank used higher scores on psychopathy tests as a positive for recruitment). I think we’ll need legislative barriers (like the Genetic Information Nondescrimination Act in the US) for us to control ourselves, but maybe you’re more optimistic than me.

Do you think genomics has a role in the future of our organisations? And do you think it should?


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