Ward and Sandidge: Brain enzymes may affect work styles

Part of the wonder of being a member of a social species is exploring differences among people. Take, for example, our friends Cheryl and Tim. Cheryl is a computer programmer who specializes in writing code for large network companies. Tim is a trainer for a national corporation. 

Cheryl claims boredom with her job in general. The only time she feels truly motivated is when a problem occurs in the system. She is her department’s go-to person when the network goes down and no one knows why. She jumps into action and will work around the clock, tracking down the culprit, finding the hole left by a missing line of code, narrowing down the hunt to a single mistake. 

Tim knows every training assignment cold. He studied for months after he learned he was taking over the training position. He carried index cards with him everywhere. He wants to know the answer to every question a participant might have and the correct response to any difficult training situation. Why? First, he cares deeply about excellence; second, the stress of not knowing what to do or, even worse, doing what might be perceived as the wrong thing, is overwhelming. It takes a long time for him to recover from even a slight professional mishap.

Let’s talk brain neurotransmitters for a moment. Dopamine is a favorite of ours, because it motivates us to take action to meet goals, fulfill values and seek the good things in life through anticipating rewards.

Dopamine is essential. However, too much dopamine can cause overload, leading to anxiety, excess stress and worse. Because of that, our brains have a way to clear excess dopamine. Except for the prefrontal cortex, our brains’ most recent addition, and where we make plans and decisions. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book “Top Dog,” no one knew how dopamine was cleared from the pre-frontal cortex until 1957, when Julius Axelrod discovered the COMT (catechol-O-methyltransferase) enzyme. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery in 1970.

Then, in the late 1990s, another discovery was made. It turns out there are two slightly different types of COMT enzymes, based on genetic predisposition. One type of the enzyme clears dopamine quickly and efficiently. The second works slowly – four times more slowly.

Here’s a way to think about the difference: Imagine two chefs, each of whom has a maid that cleans up after him. Maid One is a speed freak, obsessed with order in the kitchen. Counters always are spotless; utensils are cleaned and put away instantly. Maid Two is more leisurely. Things may sit for a while, but she works methodically and consistently. 

The upside of Maid One’s approach to cleaning the kitchen: The kitchen is always clear and ready for the next task. The upside of Maid Two’s cleaning pattern: The chef can plan thoroughly, putting out prep bowls, ingredients and utensils. Everything will stay in place through the entire cooking process.

Each approach also has a downside: Maid One is clearing every surface and utensil regardless of whether it’s being used. The chef reaches for his stirring spoon, but it’s gone. Maid Two: Kitchen clutter can get away from her quickly and she gets overwhelmed. So does the chef when needed tools are dirty, and he can’t find a clear surface.

Think back to our friends Cheryl and Tim. Not only does it take a lot to make Cheryl feel stressed, she practically needs a good bit of stress to get motivated to take action. Tim, on the other hand, takes every precaution to avoid any stress at all because he gets overwhelmed. Cheryl is likely the recipient of the fast COMT genetic variation: dopamine is cleared so quickly that under normal circumstances, she feels bored and unmotivated. Tim, on the slow end of the COMT clearing speed, operates well most of the time, but either collapses or loses control when circumstances become even slightly stressful.

How do the two types of COMT enzyme affect work and performance? Tune in next month to find out!

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, of CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants. Reach them at or go to 

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