The dancing genes, sociability, transcendence, and genetic flexibility

A recent article published online says that dancers are genetically different. Some Israeli researchers found that dancers show consistent differences from the general population in two genes.

The researchers said this did not surprise them, because studies have found that athletes and musicians have genetic differences.

I can only speak for myself, but my dance is very connected to music — my movement is a way to participate musically, as if I were playing an instrument. It’s also very physical.

I did a little Googling to see if I could find which specific genes differ in athletes and musicians, but I didn’t find anything that was very clear. Race seems to be the biggest issue in the media when it comes to genetics, athletes, and musicians.

The researchers studied dancers and advanced dance students and found they had variants in two genes, those affecting serotonin transport and arginine vasopressin reception.

Serotonin (“the happiness molecule”) is a neurotransmitter that contributes to spiritual experience — the capacity for transcendence and a proclivity to spiritual acceptance. (See this Psychology Today article for more about that.) It also affects optimism, the healing of wounds, resilience from stress, metabolism, sleep, and more.

“Serotonin transport” sounds like a dance inside the body!

Interestingly, exercise can raise serotonin levels in the body, so dancing itself reinforces dancers’ high serotonin levels!

I admit — I get into an altered state from ecstatic dance. That’s why they call it ecstatic dance, I suspect. 😉

The vasopressin receptor modulates social communication and affiliative bonding. Wikipedia says “…accumulating evidence suggests it plays an important role in social behavior, bonding, and maternal responses to stress.” It has a very similar structure to oxytocin (“the love hormone”), and the two can cross-react.

When the results were combined and analyzed, it was clearly shown that the dancers exhibited particular genetic and personality characteristics that were not found in the other two groups.

The dancer “type,” says Ebstein, clearly demonstrates qualities that are not necessarily lacking but are not expressed as strongly in other people: a heightened sense of communication, often of a symbolic and ceremonial nature, and a strong spiritual personality trait.

I know this is controversial, but I want to weigh in on the side of flexibility when it comes to genetics. For much of my life, genes were thought to be destiny, unalterable. Now it is known that the expression of genes is much more dynamic than previously believed. They can switch on and off.

I don’t know that much about it, except that stress tends to switch on the bad genes. I don’t know which or how many genes truly create destiny and therefore cannot be influenced, except that there probably are some. We just don’t know enough about this in our current level of understanding.

I want to encourage people who believe they don’t have the dancing genes to give dancing a try.

Two left feet? That’s a myth. If you can walk, you have rhythm and coordination.

If you think you can’t dance, try just moving to some music alone in your own home if you feel self-conscious. Play something catchy, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Start simple, just swaying your hips to the beat, keeping your feet in place. Do you like it? Do you feel any sense of pleasure? Play with it. Add your arms. Walk to it. Make it fun and goofy!

Those dancing genes may be just sitting there waiting to be activated, for all we know, and they might help you become happier.

Serotonin: the “don’t panic yet” neurotransmitter

Here’s a New York Times article, Job Description Grows for Our Utility Hormone, on the neurotransmitter serotonin.

New findings: it’s manufactured prenatally by the placenta and stimulates the growth of new neural connections in the forebrain, and it plays a role in bone health.

Excerpts:

The molecule was first detected in 1948, in blood serum, and it was shown be a vascular toning agent that causes blood vessels to constrict — hence its name, a conjoinment of “serum” and “tone.” Five years later, scientists found serotonin in brain extracts as well, and they soon learned that the recently invented hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide worked by tapping into the brain’s serotonin system and that if you took too much LSD you might end up wearing hair garlands and overusing the word “wow.”

For all the intricacy, serotonin in the brain has a basic personality. “It’s a molecule involved in helping people cope with adversity, to not lose it, to keep going and try to sort everything out,” said Philip J. Cowen, a serotonin expert at Oxford University and the Medical Research Council. In the fine phrase of his Manchester University colleague Bill Deakin, “it’s the ‘Don’t panic yet’ neurotransmitter,” said Dr. Cowen.
Given serotonin’s job description, disturbances in the system can contribute to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and mental calcification, an inability to see the world anew — at least in otherwise vulnerable people.

Neuronal serotonin may be better known, but as it happens the vast bulk of the body’s serotonin supply, better than 95 percent, is synthesized outside the brain, mostly by the gut. The two serotonin stocks are kept strictly segregated by the blood-brain barrier, however, and are able to perform on entirely independent pathways.

The gut’s “second brain” influences mood and well-being

This article from Scientific American is about the enteric nervous system (gut intelligence).

Some excerpts:

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above.

The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Because antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase serotonin levels, it’s little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome—which afflicts more than two million Americans—also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a “mental illness” of the second brain.

In a new Nature Medicine study published online February 7, a drug that inhibited the release of serotonin from the gut counteracted the bone-deteriorating disease osteoporosis in postmenopausal rodents. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) “It was totally unexpected that the gut would regulate bone mass to the extent that one could use this regulation to cure—at least in rodents—osteoporosis,” says Gerard Karsenty, lead author of the study and chair of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center.

Serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. “If these genes are affected in autism,” he says, “it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities” in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood.