Do you see yourself being easily overwhelmed by seemingly subtle things? Do you notice other people’s moods before anyone else? If this sounds like you, you may be a ‘highly sensitive person’, and your DNA may be partially responsible for it.
But let’s backtrack. What does it even mean to be a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP)? HSPs feel ‘too much and too deeply,’ experiencing the world as if all sensations, experiences, perceptions were given microphones. If you are highly sensitive, you would respond to the slightest stimuli. One way to measure this trait is the HSP Scale, a questionnaire that scores the extent of your sensory processing sensitivity. From a mental health perspective, this trait is important because it is correlated with symptoms of neuroticism (which is characterized by frustration, moodiness, anxiety, depression, and so forth).
In a 2011 study looking at 480 healthy Chinese college students, investigators found 10 statistically significant gene variants that had main associations with HSP. To conduct this study, they focused on mutations in 16 genes related to the dopamine system (our reward pathway in the brain) because they hypothesized that variation in copies of these genes would be most relevant to highly sensitive personality. After investigators identified these gene loci, they ran statistical models to see how the combined effect of these gene variants and their interactions can predict HSP scores. The model that incorporated just the 10 gene variants accounted for 15% of the variation in HSP scores. Interestingly, when environmental factors (namely parental warmth and the number of stressful life events) were added to the model, 17% of HSP variation was accounted for. This can suggest firstly that the environmental factors do not add as much explanatory power, and secondly, that there are other factors that may play a larger role in whether or not you are highly sensitive.
Scientists still have more to explore on the determinants of the trait, but this study provides important preliminary evidence that can inspire further research. Check it out here for more details: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21765900
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