Scientists know that small variations in certain genes can predispose people to cancers or heart disease. Now researchers are starting to show a direct, quantifiable effect on learning traceable to these types of genetic influences: single-nucleotide polymorphisms. A difference in just one amino acid in a protein might explain why some people learn new motor skills faster and reach higher levels of performance.
The protein, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a key driver of synaptic plasticity, the ability of the connections between brain cells to change in strength. This plasticity is an important factor in learning, explains neurologist Janine Reis, who led the study at the National Institutes of Health. According to Reis, this finding offers the first evidence that slight variations in BDNF’s structure affect learning ability.
Volunteers with one type of BDNF learned faster and performed better at a task in which they had to grip a handle more or less tightly to move a computer cursor through a sequence of targets. Those with a different variant never reached the skill level acquired by the faster learners. (The researchers excluded people who play video games.)
Other groups have found that the BDNF version that Reis linked with poorer acquisition of skills is associated with reduced function of the hippocampus, a brain region involved in motor learning.
This difference in BDNF may be a clue as to why certain people excel at athletic performance, Reis says, or it may help predict how well patients will recover motor skills after a stroke. Her team and others are gearing up to look at gene variants in stroke patients, hoping to find new targets for drug therapy.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "A Gene for Athleticism?".