Here's One Reason Why You're So Sensitive

Sensitive people have a rough time in this big, mean world of ours. And, recent research suggests our genes play a big role in determining just how sensitive we are to emotional events.

A study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at brain scans of 39 participants while they were presented images with varying degrees of visual "noise." Participants had to rate whether each picture was more or less "noisy" than the one before it. A week later, they were all asked to rate how "emotionally arousing" each image was, while researchers analyzed whether or not a particular variation of the ADRA2b gene associated with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine was present. 

Results showed that participants who carried a certain variant of the ADRA2b gene picked up more of the noise in the presented images, especially in those images carrying an emotional impact. These subjects' brain scans revealed higher activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in fear processing. The authors concluded that "[these] carriers perceive emotional aspects of the world more vividly."  

In another paper, the same researchers also linked that ADRA2b variant to higher activation in the amygdala, another fear-processing area. A 2007 study indicated that people with this variant are more likely to suffer from intrusive memories after undergoing trauma. And, yet more research conducted in 2013 suggested this gene variant sets us up to notice and remember negative things particularly well. 

So, this common variant (present in 30% of caucasians and 12% of African Americans), may account for some individual differences in sensitivity to emotional events. We'll be sure to remember that the next time we tear up out of nowhere at an old episode of The West Wing...which we definitely do not do.

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