It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – their child is hanging out with a group of delinquents! They are probably asking themselves why this is happening…

Florida State University criminologist Kevin M. Beaver may have an answer for them. According to a new study published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology, this may be genetic. A certain variation in a gene encoding the dopamine transporter gene, DAT1, may cause adolescents to seek out anti-social peers.

The dopamine transporter gene actually clears dopamine, an important “feel-good” neuro-transporter, from the brain. This chemical is part of our brain’s reward/motivation system and plays a role in drug addiction as some drugs (such as ecstasy) mimic dopamine and leave you feeling depressed once the high wears off. DAT1 variation seen in this study may cause lower levels of the protein to be expressed (see this paper), theoretically allowing for higher levels of dopamine.

Some good news from this study is that the association of this gene with the risky behavior is only seen in males with a “high-risk” family environment. So, being an active, positive participant in your child’s life is IMPORTANT to their happiness and well-being.

It has previously been suggested that abnormally high levels of dopamine can play a role in such conditions as ADHD, schizophrenia, and mania. This leads me to believe that there may be many reasons why kids with this problem may hang out with anti-social, delinquent peers and, perhaps, why parents that are actually paying attention to their children may help circumvent the problem.

I find this study interesting because it emphasizes the fact that both genetic AND environmental factors can and do play a role in our actions and in disease. I think it is very important for us to remember that often times there are multiple factors playing a role in every biological process, making things much more complicated to understand and treat.