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Study suggests gene linked to credit card debt

10 May 2010
Appeared in BioNews 557

Our genetic make-up may influence the likelihood of running into debt, UK and US researchers have found, according to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) research magazine.

In the study, 2,500 18-26 year olds were asked 'Do you have credit card debt, yes or no?' The results showed those possessing one 'inefficient' MAOA (monoamine oxidase A) gene were eight per cent more likely to have credit card debt compared to those with none and for those with two, the likelihood increased by 16 per cent.

The study, yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal, was conducted by Jan-Emmanual De Neve from LSE and Professor James Fowler from the University of California.

De Neve explains: 'The MAOA gene has a number of variations, but typically they're categorised as high efficiency or low efficiency alleles - and you can have one high, one low or two highs or two lows depending on what your parents passed along. The low efficiency types have been linked in previous studies to traits such as lack of conscientiousness, impulsivity, and addictive behaviour'. MAOA, is linked to the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, which help control mood, heart rate and cognitive ability.

De Neve has raised concerns about the potential of the study to lead to genetic discrimination. The US Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) 2008 regarding genetic data currently relates to health insurers and employers only. So, De Neve says, if banks were to obtain a piece of hair and an envelope with saliva, they could potentially determine a person's MAOA gene variations and decide whether to adapt a fee or premium, currently without any legal problems. The researchers are now suggesting a review of current policy surrounding the handling of genetic information, in order to outlaw all acts of genetic discrimination.

With the increasing availability of DNA analysis, is it possible for scientists to link genes to specific behaviours? In answer to the existence of a 'debt gene', De Neve thinks not. He says: 'There will never be a debt gene simply because credit card behaviour is not a singular discrete trait like blue eyes that you can relate back to a variation of one gene. Credit card borrowing behaviour is the result of a number of genes, the environment, and the interaction between genes and environment'.

'Credit card debt? It's in my genes (but don't tell the bank)'
LSE News |  19 March 2010
Genetic link to credit card debt
Independent |  4 May 2010
Stalking the credit card gene
LSE |  19 March 2010
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