Whether you’re placing a bet at a casino or settling on a business or investment strategy, you’re probably using a system. And the system needn’t be consciously constructed. Instead, it may be at the level of your brain’s dopamine and neurotransmitter networks, which are, in turn, influenced by your genes.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it has been revealed that betting decisions in a simple competitive game are influenced by the specific variants of dopamine-regulating genes in a person’s brain. The study showed a surprising correlation between gene-variant patterns and two kinds of competitive behavior—reinforcement learning and belief learning.

Reinforcement learning is relatively simple. It involves a trial-and-error approach to weighing the consequences of your own actions. Belief learning, however, is more sophisticated. It involves making a mental model of the other players, in order to anticipate and respond to their actions.

“This study shows that genes influence complex social behavior, in this case strategic behavior,” said study leader Ming Hsu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “We now have some clues about the neural mechanisms through which our genes affect behavior.”

According to a release issued by the UC Berkeley News Center, Dr. Hsu indicated that the implications for business are potentially vast but unclear. He cited the possibility of training workforces to be more strategic. He also suggested that the findings could significantly affect our understanding of diseases involving dopamine, such as schizophrenia, as well as disorders of social interaction, such as autism.

The UC Berkeley release also described how Dr. Hsu and colleagues scrutinized genes involved in regulating dopamine concentrations in brain areas associated with strategic thinking. The researchers began by enlisting as subjects a group of 217 undergraduates at the National University of Singapore, all of whom had had their genomes scanned for some 700,000 genetic variants. Then the researchers focused on 143 variants within 12 genes involved in regulating dopamine.

Some of the 12 genes are primarily involved in regulating dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive part of the brain (and influences belief learning), while others primarily regulate dopamine in the striatum, which deals with motivation (and influences reinforcement learning). According to earlier studies, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging, these brain regions display intense activity when people play competitive games.

The researchers presented their results June 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in an article entitled “Dissociable contribution of prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes to learning in economic games.” They described how they combined computational modeling of strategic learning with a pathway approach to characterize association of strategic behavior with variations in the dopamine pathway.

“Specifically, using gene-set analysis, we systematically examined contribution of different dopamine genes to variation in a multistrategy competitive game,” the authors wrote. “We found that variation in genes that primarily regulate prefrontal dopamine clearance—catechol-O-methyl transferase and two isoforms of monoamine oxidase—modulated degree of belief learning across individuals. Furthermore, variation in genes that primarily regulate striatal dopamine function—dopamine transporter and D2 receptors—was significantly associated with the learning rate.” The learning rate, in this context, refers to how quickly the study subjects forgot past experiences and changed strategy.

“We were surprised by the degree of overlap, but it hints at the power of studying the neural and genetic levels under a single mathematical framework, which is only beginning in this area,” Dr. Hsu remarked. He is currently collaborating with other scientists to correlate career achievements in older adults with genes and performance on competitive games, to see which brain regions and types of learning are most important for different kinds of success in life.

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