March 2015, Vol. 27, No. 3, Pages 509-521.
Long Allele Carriers Show Heightened Attention to High-priority Items Relative to Low-priority Items
Humans with seven or more repeats in exon III of the DRD4 gene (long DRD4 carriers) sometimes demonstrate impaired attention, as seen in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and at other times demonstrate heightened attention, as seen in addictive behavior. Although the clinical effects of DRD4 are the focus of much work, this gene may not necessarily serve as a “risk” gene for attentional deficits, but as a plasticity gene where attention is heightened for priority items in the environment and impaired for minor items. Here we examine the role of DRD4 in two tasks that benefit from selective attention to high-priority information. We examine a category learning task where performance is supported by focusing on features and updating verbal rules. Here, selective attention to the most salient features is associated with good performance. In addition, we examine the Operation Span (OSPAN) task, a working memory capacity task that relies on selective attention to update and maintain items in memory while also performing a secondary task. Long DRD4 carriers show superior performance relative to short DRD4 homozygotes (six or less tandem repeats) in both the category learning and OSPAN tasks. These results suggest that DRD4 may serve as a “plasticity” gene where individuals with the long allele show heightened selective attention to high-priority items in the environment, which can be beneficial in the appropriate context.