Drugs could one day prevent marriages from falling apart

A "divorce gene" linked to an increased risk of relationship breakdown has been discovered by scientists. Researchers say it plays a crucial role in determining how the brain responds to a chemical that is central to the bonding process between a man and a woman. Men with a variant of the gene tended to score badly on a questionnaire designed to assess how well they bond with their partner and were more likely to report having suffered marital difficulties.

The discovery raises the possibility that scientists could one day develop drugs to target the gene in an attempt to prevent marriages from falling apart. Hasse Walum and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, used Sweden’s Twin and Offspring Study, which includes data on more than 550 twins and their partners or spouses. They looked at a protein in the body which responds to a chemical called vasopressin, which is central to human bonding. The researchers then compared the genes in that area to men’s scores on the Partner Bonding Scale, which is designed to estimate the strength of a person’s attachment to his or her spouse or partner. They found that men with one version of the gene had low scores and were less likely to be married.

The wives of those who were married were also less satisfied with their marriage than women whose husbands did not have that genetic variant. Those with two copies of it were twice as likely to report having had a marital crisis in the past year, the team report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Women married to men who carry one or two copies of (the gene) were, on average, less satisfied with their relationship than women married to men who didn't carry it," said Mr Walum, a postgraduate student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics. "There are, of course, many reasons why a person might have relationship problems, but this is the first time that a specific gene variant has been associated with how men bond to their partners."

Earlier research on the same gene in prairie voles showed that boosting levels of vasopressin in the brain made the animals more monogamous. Humans, like the voles, are unusual in tending to pair off and remain faithful as fewer than five per cent of mammal species are habitually monogamous.

Mr Walum stressed that the gene could not be used to predict with any real accuracy how someone is likely to behave in a future relationship. But he added: "The fact that the corresponding gene has proved important for similar behaviour in voles makes our findings even more interesting, and suggests that the thoroughly studied brain mechanisms that we know give rise to strong bonds between individual voles can also be relevant to humans."

Previous studies of twins suggest that both the tendency to be unfaithful and the likelihood of divorce are more likely to be inherited than major illnesses such as high blood pressure and cancer. Scientists hope that greater knowledge of the effect vasopressin has human relationships will lead to a better understanding of what causes diseases characterised by problems with social interaction, such as autism.
Source: Telegraph.

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