NTNU research reported by New York Times as discovering learning genes
Dr. Chun-Yen Chang, the leader of the research at NTNU’s Science Education Center.

Why are some children able to handle competition and pressure and get high scores while some are not? A report from the New York Times published on Feb. 6 cited NTNU’s pioneering research, which suggests COMT (enzyme), a human genome, is the answer to the question. The gene controls the activities of the neurological system and maintains brain function. The article topped the newspaper’s most forwarded news on the same day.

The New York Times article said Taiwan’s Basic Competency Test was the best research material for the gene study since more than 200,000 junior high students in Taiwan took the test that would determine their future in May every year. Dr. Chun-Yen Chang, the leader of the research at NTNU’s Science Education Center, arranged to take blood samples from 779 students who took the test in three major test venues, and analyzed their scores and their genes. The researchers were interested in the students’ COMT gene, which carries an assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex in the human brain. People make plans, decision, anticipate consequences and solve conflicts through this part of the brain. The dopamine can change the firing rate of neurons, accelerating the brain likes a turbocharger. When the dopamine is maintained at an optimal level— not more or less- the brain is at its best condition.

There are two variants of the COMT gene. One of them clears the dopamine slowly while another does it more rapidly. Most people carry one or both of them. Research shows those who carry the variant clearing dopamine slowly have a cognitive advantage and a higher IQ on average but they would buckle under excessive pressure. While those carrying the other variant that clears dopamine rapidly performed best when under pressure.

The average score of students carrying the former variant was 8% lower than those later one, the Taiwanese research found. “I am not against pressure. In fact, pressure is good for some people. But for those who are more vulnerable to stress, they will be more disadvantaged,” Chang said.

The article also suggests that understanding students’ ability and how they cope with stress would also help them to compete. Stress is much more complex than people think but it is also easier to control.

The newspaper also cited other research studying the COMT gene including those conducted by the US military. Brown University has been trying to find out the connection between the gene and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans retired from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. US Naval Postgraduate School also studies the influence of the gene on pilots’ performance. The San Diego division of the University of California has conducted research on the role the gene plays in combat performance and well-being.

Initial research results show that people who are prone to worry can still handle tremendous pressure if they were trained to do so. Some members of the US special force Navy SEALs are born with genes prone to worry but they were still able to become soldiers.

Certain genes help students to perform well in science, mathematics and social science, says Chang.

Chang, who has won three Distinguished Research Awards from the National Science Council, was surprised when he learned his research had been cited by the New York Times. He said that Taiwan’s education mostly measures students’ performances through test results and scales. He hopes his research on genes and biomarkers could help to enhance students’ learning.

He was very proud that his research was cited by well-known international media, the New York Times and shared the news on his Facebook page with relatives and friends. He has continued the research and incorporated several fields of study such as genes, cognition, neuroscience and education, hoping to help students to enhance their learning.

Humans have approximately 30,000 genes, of which COMT-158 may be connected to learning. The gene COMT is an enzyme which recycles and clears dopamine in the brain. There are three variants of the gene: MET-158/MET-158, MET-158/VAL-158 and VAL-158/VAL-158.

Research in the past suggested that students with the variant MET-158/MET-158 perform better in working memory, language and IQ tests. However, Chang’s research found those students’ performances in science, mathematics and social science to be much poorer than other students carrying the other two variants. In other words, the gene may provide certain advantages but cannot directly produce good academic performance. The postnatal environment and the students’ ability to cope with stress could also be significant factors which contribute to a phenomenon: good genes but poor scores.

He thought it was a scam when two American best-selling writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman emailed him six months ago saying that they had read his research and wanted to cite it in their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.

Chang said that he had read the article in the New York Times and found that the two writers had made a lot of efforts and had studied multiple researches in addition to his. They found that pilots could learn to handle stress through flight simulator training.

Last year he worked with universities and hospitals in order to conduct research on the BDNF gene on around a hundred people aged between 18 and 20. Initial research results showed that people with good visual memory usually have poor auditory memory and vice versa. The research has been published in international journals.