Do you know a worrier? Perhaps you have a child or were a child who worried about everything. The February 8, 2013, issue of the New York Times had a great article on worriers and warriors that helps us understand why some people present such a predisposition and how we can help them.
New research shows that there is a gene that is responsible for some of the worrying behavior that we see. This COMT gene carries the code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. Dopamine gives us that rush that lets us concentrate. It changes the firing rate of neurons, making us more alert and able to act. The enzyme from the COMT gene removes the dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. There are two variations of this enzyme: one of the variants builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine, the other rapidly clears the dopamine.
Those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. The dopamine lingers and they are focused and have superior executive functioning. Those with fast-acting enzymes have too much dopamine removed, so their overall level of prefrontal cortex activity is low. They exhibit less concentration and overall a less-inspired performance.
Under stress the process is reversed. Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine and those with the slow-acting enzyme can’t clear it; their engine is flooded. If they are more vulnerable to stress they will be disadvantaged. People with fast-acting enzymes need stress to perform, they need the extra dopamine to rev up their engine since the dopamine is cleared so quickly. Their ability to concentrate and solve problems actually increases.
Historically, it is the warriors who receive dopamine under stress and are ready for a threat. Worriers have the ability for more complex planning under normal circumstances, but need warriors by their side for times of stress. Since this is genetic, we receive a combination of warrior or worrier genes from our parents. A child may receive worrier or warrior genes from both parents, which explains such a broad continuum or worriers or warriors.