Sep 20, 2011 - Research

Genetic Variation Influences How We Respond to Reinforcement

By Bethann Hromatka

The human brain is hardwired to receive chemical signals from our environment. It primarily does this through receptors–proteins on the surfaces of cells that catch specific molecules when they pass by.

An interesting class of receptors is the mu-opioid receptors, so named because they influence responses to opiates (for instance morphine). These receptors are also involved in processing reward and dealing with stress.

Addiction Studies

A few years ago, researchers identified a SNP ( in the opioid receptor gene OPRM1) associated with alcohol addiction. This SNP also appears to be involved in processing responses to physical and emotional pain. In addition, studies have linked to heroin addiction and responses to Naltrexone, a medication used to treat alcohol dependence and heroin addiction.

A study published this month suggests that also influences learning through positive reinforcement. The researchers behind this study tested if individuals with different versions of were more or less likely to continue choosing the right answer in a video game if they received reinforcement (in the form of a small cash prize) for correct answers.

Positive Reinforcement

The authors found that positive reinforcement prompted individuals with specific genetic variant tended to continue to choose the right answer over time. That is, positive reinforcement motivated these individuals to learn. In contrast, individuals with at another version of this marker were less motivated by positive feedback – these participants did not continue to choose the right answer over time.

In general, giving a child ice cream for good performance on a spelling bee will prompt him/her to continue to learn.  This study suggests that such responses are influenced by genetics. This report also suggests that the same version of is simultaneously involved in reinforcement learning. Many consider this to be a beneficial behavior, and alcohol addiction, an unhealthy behavior. Studies like this one may eventually help elucidate the pathways that govern both normal human conduct and complex disorders.

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