March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Is there a genetic basis for risk-taking, linked to our mental and physical wellbeing?

‘There can be no great accomplishment without risk,’ commented the hugely accomplished Astronaut Neil Armstrong, a man whose pioneering journey to the moon came fraught with danger. But having a risk-taking nature could be more jeopardising than we first thought, putting both physical and mental health on the line.

We’ve all been there. Enjoying that surge of adrenaline consuming our bodies when a risk has paid off. Whilst we all understand this feeling, our urges to take risk manifest differently, with some happy to plunge themselves into deep water, and others simply terrified by the thought. It’s been queried for some time that there may a genetic basis for this variation but only now has it been discovered what this is and the potential link it has to our mental and physical wellbeing.

‘Would you describe yourself as someone who takes risks?’, was the question posed to 500,000 adults living in the UK, Emma Clifton, PhD student at the University of Cambridge, tells me. A quarter of those individuals answered yes, also more frequently reporting drug addiction and increased alcohol consumption. Delve into this 25% further and some intriguing things are discovered in their genetic instruction manual. Those individuals described as risk-takers are found to have subtle genetic differences in 26 points on the genome. ‘They [genetic differences] definitely play a role in making people vulnerable to risk taking behaviour.’

Four of these differences exist in or near genes associated with body mass index. The more risk-increasing variants an individual had, the more calories they were likely to consume, increasing their likelihood of weight gain. But where does the impact of being a risk-taker switch from affecting our physical wellbeing to affecting our mental health?

‘What we found was that the genes associated with these 26 locations are expressed in the brain, which was more or less expected, but also in the immune system. That was really interesting because although the immune system has been linked to mood and behaviour before, for example in depression, it has not necessarily been linked to personality.’

The link between our immune system and our mental wellbeing is starting to gain traction. In relation to risk-takers, the 26 ‘risk-taker’ genes were found to be expressed in the immune system and central nervous system. Changes to our immune function and increased inflammation as a result of this, have previously been associated with depression and psychosis. It could be that with more research into the genetics of risk-taking, we may be able to better understand the mechanism linking risk-taking and mental illness which, with more research, could potentially put risk-takers at a predisposition to poor mental health.

Yes, risk-taking can drive us to do better, but research is beginning to suggest that the more likely we are to take risks, the more we might risk damaging both our mental and physical health.

Rachel Kahn is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Balancing on the Brink, Dylan Watts and Paxson Woelber / Wikimedia Commons.