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Extreme sports: Hardwired for thrills

The Story

Sharon Wood didn't blaze a new path up Mount Everest just to stand on top of the world. The point of risking her life in that way, Wood says, was "to do it in good style." If it seems that people like her think differently than the rest of us, it's because they do. As we see in this television clip, medical researchers believe some people are genetically destined to risk death in pursuit of fun and personal challenge. One scientist, Dr. Ernest Noble, believes extreme athletes may carry the gene also linked to alcoholism. Instead of reaching for the bottle, he says, these "dry alcoholics" climb an ice wall, ride a BMX bicycle off a jump or do something else to give their brains a boost. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: Feb. 25, 1998
Guests: Barb Clems, Dean Hamer, Ernest Noble, Sharon Wood
Duration: 5:06

Did You know?

• Dean Hamer is the prominent and controversial American geneticist in this clip who identified what some call "thrill" or "novelty-seeking" genes. He has since suggested a person's genetic makeup can predispose them to other behaviours as well. Gambling addictions, anxiety disorders, male promiscuity and a strong sense of spirituality are among them. Most controversial is his argument that genetics can predetermine homosexuality. Other scientists say a person's environment has as much or more impact on behaviour than genetics.

• Since this clip aired, Dr. Ernest Noble of the University of California has published research linking the D2 dopamine receptor gene to smoking, cocaine use and obesity, as well as alcoholism and risk-taking behaviour.
• After leading a 1998 study, Noble estimated that 20 per cent of people are born with the D2 dopamine receptor while 30 per cent are born with both that gene and another, the D4 dopamine receptor, also linked to risk-taking behaviour.

• Critics of the "thrill gene" theories argue that they don't explain aficionados of sports that are dangerous but hardly full of quick thrills. In a 2003 essay, British scientist Dalya Rosner asked: "If people with a novelty-seeking personality needed a quick fix to keep their moods stable, would they really seek out a sport as drawn out as mountaineering? If their attention span lags, could they be bothered to plot and plan?"

• The notion that some people are predisposed to risky activities has been around for decades. In 1973, University of Illinois researcher Dr. Sol Roy Rosenthal told CBC Radio's As It Happens that humans have a natural drive for such sports because of an evolutionary holdover from the days when they had to hunt their own food. He argued that participating in "risk sports," such as horseback riding, swimming and sailing, is essential for physical and mental well-being.

• At the end of the 1973 interview, Rosenthal talked about the feeling of euphoria athletes get after completing a risky endeavour. He said he hoped to work out the biochemistry that triggers the euphoria. Scientists later concluded that, despite popular use of the phrase "adrenaline junkie," it is the natural chemicals dopamine, endorphins and seratonin that produce the high.

• To hear the 1973 interview with Rosenthal, go to the additional clip "The science behind 'risk sports.'"



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