Health

Fight or Flight: How Genetics May Tip Your Hand

A volatile upbringing can trigger the so-called 'warrior gene'

There are some people who just like to fight, whether that fight is physical, emotional or verbal.

New research has once again confirmed these people may be genetically predisposed to the condition.

The warrior gene, also known as the MAOA gene, is well known and long discussed in medical and psychiatric fields. New research from the University of Montreal and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in January, however, asserts there is a connection between possessing the MAOA gene and a tendency toward violent and aggressive behavior.

“Having this warrior gene means a person is likely to be extremely competitive and aggressive,” Dr. James Fallon told LizeZette. A professor and researcher at the University of California, Irvine, Fallon has studied the warrior gene for decades. “But the warrior gene doesn’t mean you’re an extrovert. You don’t always see the aggression.”

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When you hear the words “warrior gene,” you may think of famous warriors such as Hannibal or Hercules. Sure, they might have been carriers, but researchers say testing and learning more about these warriors’ childhoods would be most helpful.

The gene has to be “put in context,” as one of the study’s key researchers, Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, told LifeZette.

Here’s why: The results suggest it’s not the gene alone that triggers acts of violence and antisocial behavior. It’s the effect of having both the MAOA gene and an experience of mistreatment during childhood that prompts a dangerous, if not deadly, combination.

The study focused on 327 male kindergarten children over a 15-year period. Researchers looked at the children’s exposure to trauma or mistreatment, ranging from general maltreatment to sexual and physical abuse, violent and antisocial personality symptoms. All of this was assessed through interviews.

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About 30 percent of males carry the MAOA gene, while only about 9 percent of females do. While a third of the male population may seem high, researchers said very few among that population were also mistreated. The overlap doesn’t always show in signs of aggressive or violent behavior.

“Why women don’t have the gene as often is still not understood,” said Fallon.

The gene is carried through the X chromosome; having two X chromosomes, as females do, seems to limit the chance for the person to carry the gene.

“With the two X chromosomes, there seems to be a process in a woman’s life very early on, where one of the X chromosomes inactivates the gene — one basically turns it off.”

It’s unknown why the Y chromosome, found in males only, does not limit or cancel out the risk.

Again, researchers say it’s important to remember that violent behavior is only more likely in these gene carriers if the person was also mistreated as a child.

“The gene by itself — and people having the gene — can be misleading,” Ouellet-Morin said.

Just because someone has the warrior gene doesn’t mean that individual will engage in violent behavior. “Having the gene (by itself) is not sufficient to explain the risk of behavior.”

As for doing genetic testing for the gene, researchers say don’t bother.

“Learning that you have the warrior gene doesn’t mean you’ll be a certain way. It explains why you’re a certain way,” said Fallon. He said there are more helpful things to test for, and warns that genetic tests can expose things you may not want to learn.

“Genetic testing should only be used for novelty. You have to go into the test knowing well that you could get some horrible news.” Those who want to have the test done should be at least 21 years old, he said, because until that age, our genes are still working themselves out.

As for the warrior gene, researchers say whether your child carries it isn’t the most important thing.

“What seems more important is for parents to take care of their children, to prevent them from being maltreated,” said Ouellet-Morin.

Studies looking at the gene and at those individuals who carry it are ongoing. Currently, there is no way of knowing how or when it might be important to intervene.

“It’s easy to think that it’s simple, knowing that someone may have the gene. But right now, we don’t know much about it,” said Ouellet-Morin. “We don’t know everything about how these two things — the gene and maltreatment experiences — combine, and it may be years until we know the full picture, when we have more sense of the mechanics involved. Then we’ll be able to identify more the at-risk children who were maltreated.”

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