According to Professor Richard Ebstein, volunteers in a soup kitchen might might possess a gene variant that gives them a good feeling from doing good.Why are some people more prone to give charity or put themselves in danger in order to help others?

A team of Israeli psychologists claim they have the answer – they’ve located the first gene linked to altruistic behavior.

According to a study conducted by Prof. Richard Ebstein and colleagues at the Hebrew University and Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, a link exists between people who appear selfless and seek to help others, and a gene variant on chromosome No. 11.

Volunteers who filled out a questionnaire exhibiting these traits then had DNA samples taken where the gene variant was discovered – which boosts receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, giving the brain a good feeling.
The study appears in the online edition of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Ebstein, who was born in Brooklyn and proudly wears a Yankees cap at his work in his lab at Herzog, made world headlines a decade ago when a team he headed discovered a ‘risk-taking gene.’

“Our research deals with human behavior genetics and we’re interested in psychopathology and problems like attention deficit in children, different aspects of addiction, diseases that have a psychosomatic aspect to them like, irritable bowel syndrome, autism and eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders,” Ebstein told ISRAEL21c.

“But in addition we’re interested in normal behavioral traits – things related to peoples personalities that determine the way we are. What are the genetic determinants of pro-social behavior in people? We’re also interested in anti-social behavior, but the other side of the coin is pro-social behavior.”

Ebstein’s first venture into the field of gene study resulted in the adventure or thrill-seeking gene. “We looked at normal personality traits and found a relationship between extroversion and sensation seeking. The relationship involved the dopamine receptor within the brain and the sensation seeking behavior. It was one of the first studies that looked at the relationship between genes and personality,” he said.

But the risk-taking gene, which is linked to a tendency for taking drugs, smoking and other dangerous behavior, is an opposite variant of the altruism gene. Instead of promoting dopamine expression, the risk-taking gene variant reduces it.

“Another major difference is that while risk takers receive some kind of thrill or rush – a benefit to themselves, people who are altruistic receive no discernable benefit from their philanthropy, and in extreme cases, like running into a fire to save a stranger, put themselves at risk, said Ebstein.

“This may mean that people who don’t get enough dopamine in their brains seek out drugs or other such means to get a ‘high.’ Dopamine probably plays a key role in pro-social behavior. People with the altruism gene may do good works because they get more of a thrill out of their good works, ” Ebstein suggested.

He pointed out that the very reason that altruism does not seem to have an evolutionary benefit has been a topic of discussion for years among evolutionists, dating back to Charles Darwin.

“The question of altruism and evolutionary biology is a real conundrum because – from Darwin’s viewpoint, what’s important for an inherited trait is that it increases our fitness and evolutionary biology. Genes that increase fitness are genes that allow us to have more children than the guy next door, a gene that’s somehow going to make you more reproductive.

“The question then becomes – if our behavior to some extent is determined by genes, how can you explain that people are exhibiting pro-social behavior even at the risk of their own lives – which would of course reduce their own fitness.”

To find out the answer, Ebstein and colleagues took blood samples from 354 families with more than two siblings and asked them questions to rate them on the Selflessness Scale, a standardized questionnaire which measures altruistic behavior. Questions asked included those like ‘Are you willing to do favor for somebody else’?

According to the study, about two-thirds of the random sample carry the altruism gene. Ebstein admitted there are some problems involved in such ‘self-reporting’ in that respondents will try to make themselves look better than they may actually be.

“We are working to confirm our findings by conducting economic games with reward and punishment to see if people display altruistic behavior and then to test them for the gene variant,” said Ebstein.

Still, Ebstein is confident that his study will be an important contribution to the body of work that looks into specific traits.

“It’s one of the first papers that shows that pro social altruistic behavior has a specific gene that contributes to it. It turns out that there are a number of studies that show that people who demonstrate pro-social behavior do better in life. Volunteers have a more positive attitude towards life. So I think there’s some kind of interest in this phenomenon in people of what makes you healthy.”

Ebstein, who moved to Israel in 1968, received his PhD in biochemistry from Yale, where he also met his future wife. And he credits her with sparking his interest in gene research.

“I was working at an agricultural school, and wasn’t so interested in it. But my wife was working at the Weizman Institute of Science with a noted professor named David Samuel, who was experimenting with genes and chemistry.

To me, that sounded like what I wanted to do, so I moved over to molecular biology. I’ve always been interested in genes. But in the last dozen years, it’s become possible thanks to the human genome project to locate genes associated with individual traits,” he said.

With his groundbreaking work in the field that is opening doors for future study, it’s possible that Ebstein himself possesses the altruism gene in abundance.