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Sandidge and Ward: Brain enzymes may affect work styles

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Last month, we wrote about the brain enzyme catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT). The role of COMT is clearing dopamine from the brain area responsible for planning and decision-making. In the 1990s, scientists studying COMT learned the enzyme was really twins. There are two different types of COMT. One type sweeps away dopamine quickly. The other type clears more slowly – four times more slowly. 

Both types of COMT enzyme have survived the evolutionary process and made their way to a brain near you. The way heredity works, you have a 50 percent chance of being the recipient of both types of COMT enzyme, one copy of each type. For those in possession of such a balanced brain, we who live at the edges need your compassion. (We probably also could use your advice, but we’ll never admit it.)

Of the 50 percent of people remaining, 25 percent received two copies of the slow dopamine clearing COMT gene and 25 percent fast COMT. People who receive 100 percent slow COMT genes differ significantly from those on the opposite end of the scale, who receive 100 percent fast COMT genes. Specifically, they respond quite differently in the presence of stress.

Consider the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine. An amazing bit of chemistry, it’s central to motivation, driving us to achieve goals, anticipating the pleasure we’ll receive from our efforts. Its presence boosts ambition and fuels the quest as we chase our desires. Why would anyone give up a single molecule? Why do we need a dopamine clearing enzyme at all?

Here’s why: Too much dopamine causes overload, leading to anxiety, excess fear and an inability to make use of hard-won experience and learning. For example, students in Taiwan facing an incredibly competitive test that decides if they will get to continue their education (and quality of school), who have all slow dopamine clearing COMT, score 8 percent below those who have 100 percent fast clearing. Not a big deal? Consider that these students, who excel in the day-to-day classroom, are relegated to an inferior education based on one test. Students with the fast-clearing enzyme, who struggle with homework and have difficulty staying focused during long school days, but to whom the stress of such an important test has little effect, exchange places with their usually focused, high-achieving classmates. 

In general, the slow-clearing COMT works to people’s advantage, unless they’re under stress. On the other hand, the fast-clearing enzyme inoculates recipients from the effects of moderate, even severe stress, but steals the ability to work optimally without the influence of stress.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book, “Top Dog,” write about the COMT effect on performance. Some 172 pilots with varying levels of training and experience were studied during stressful simulator flights. Through turbulence, severe weather and engine troubles, the pilots were tested. As you might expect, those with the fast COMT gene came through with flying colors, taking on the challenge with focus and determination. The stress carried with it the dopamine they needed to excel.

But there’s more to the story. One group beat the fast COMT types: the slow COMT gene bearers who were also the most experienced professional flyers. Not only did they not collapse under the stress of the extreme simulation, they shined, remaining calm while their training and experience came to the forefront. The more experience, the better they performed.

Bottom line: if you recognize in yourself the traits of either end of the COMT scale, use your genetic inheritance to your advantage. Knowing whether stress turns on your motivation or turns your brain to mush makes all the difference. Choose wisely.

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, of CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants. Reach them at AnneBob@CreativeCore.com or go to www.NLPeople.com. 

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