Large-scale genetic study links variation in hundreds of genes to risk tolerance and risky behaviors

An international group of scientists, that includes VU Amsterdam researchers Richard Karlsson Linnér and Philipp Koellinger, has identified 124 genetic variants associated with a person’s willingness to take risks, as reported in a study published today in Nature Genetics. New findings suggest the involvement of some particular biological mechanisms

01/15/2019 | 9:26 AM

The study shows evidence of shared genetic influences across both an overall measure of risk tolerance and many specific risky behaviors. To be able to find such small genetic effects the study is based on genetic information from over one million individuals with European ancestries — much larger than any previous study on the genetics of risk tolerance and among the largest genetic studies to date. The data for this study were from the UK Biobank, the personal genomics company 23andMe, and 10 other, smaller genetic datasets.

The authors created a ‘polygenic score’ that captures the combined effects of 1 million genetic variants and statistically accounts for approximately 1.6% of the variation in general risk tolerance across individuals. Such a score can help increase the precision of empirical research but the authors add, however, that the score cannot meaningfully forecast a particular person’s risk tolerance or behavior. Yet, taken together, the genetic variants identified in the study shed light on some of the biological mechanisms that may influence a person’s willingness to take risks.

The scientists highlight that no variant on its own meaningfully affects a particular person’s risk tolerance or risk taking, and non-genetic factors matter more than genetic factors. The effects of each of the 124 genetic variants on an individual basis are all very small, but their combined impact can be significant.

The study found no evidence to support previously reported associations between risk tolerance and certain genes (such as genes related to the neurochemicals dopamine or serotonin — which are involved in the processing of rewards and mood regulation). Instead, the authors’ results suggest that the neurochemicals glutamate and GABA contribute to variation in risk tolerance across individuals. Both are important regulators of brain activity in humans and animals: glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body and boosts communication between neurons, whereas GABA inhibits it.

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The authors have developed a set of Frequently Asked Questions about this study to help explain its implications.