Article courtesy of the NIH and PubMed


Background: Mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNAcn) in tissues and blood can be altered in conditions like diabetes and major depression and may play a role in aging and longevity. However, little is known about the association between mtDNAcn and personality traits linked to emotional states, metabolic health, and longevity. This study tests the hypothesis that blood mtDNAcn is related to personality traits and mediates the association between personality and mortality.

Methods: We assessed the big five personality domains and facets using the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R), assessed depressive symptoms with the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), estimated mtDNAcn levels from whole-genome sequencing, and tracked mortality in participants from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Results were replicated in the SardiNIA Project.

Results: We found that mtDNAcn was negatively associated with the Neuroticism domain and its facets and positively associated with facets from the other four domains. The direction and size of the effects were replicated in the SardiNIA cohort and were robust to adjustment for potential confounders in both samples. Consistent with the Neuroticism finding, higher depressive symptoms were associated with lower mtDNAcn. Finally, mtDNAcn mediated the association between personality and mortality risk.

Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first study to show a replicable association between mtDNAcn and personality. Furthermore, the results support our hypothesis that mtDNAcn is a biomarker of the biological process that explains part of the association between personality and mortality.

Funding: Support for this work was provided by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging (Z01-AG000693, Z01-AG000970, and Z01-AG000949) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health. AT was also supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health Grant R01AG068093.

Keywords: depressive symptoms; epidemiology; genetics; genome sequence; genomics; global health; human; mitochondrial DNA copy number; mortality risk; personality.

Plain language summary

Cells are powered by internal structures called mitochondria which have their own DNA molecules. How many copies of mitochondrial DNA blood cells contain is one aspect of mitochondrial health and is considered to provide a good indication of an individual’s ability to convert glucose into energy. Consequently, changes in the amount of mitochondrial DNA in the blood are linked to conditions like diabetes and cancer, and have also been associated with aging and mortality. A set of well-classified personality traits known as ‘the Big Five’ have also been shown to affect energy levels and the longevity of individuals. However, it remained unclear if there is a relationship between these characteristics and the number of copies of mitochondrial DNA in the blood. To investigate, Oppong et al. used a specialized test to assess the personality traits of participants from two separate cohorts: Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the SardiNIA Project. The genomic sequence of each person was then analyzed to calculate the amount of mitochondrial DNA in their blood, and their mortality was recorded based on whether they were alive or dead multiple years later. Oppong et al. found that low levels of mitochondrial DNA were linked with high scores in neuroticism (a trait typically associated with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt). Further statistical tests revealed that mitochondrial DNA levels mediate the relationship between a person’s personality and their risk of death. These findings suggest that personality traits impact the number of mitochondrial DNA molecules in a person’s blood, which, in turn, influences how long they are likely to live. However, further work is needed to find out what causes this effect.

Conflict of interest statement

RO, AT, MP, YQ, TB, TT, AM, ES, KO, CC, AS, MG, SR, FC, LF, JD No competing interests declared, SS participates as a Scientific advisory board member for Lewy body dementia association. The author has no other competing interests to declare, BT has indicated several grants, patents, positions and interests in his individual ICMJE form, but he has done it in the interest of transparency and none of his disclosures is related to the content of the current manuscript, DS is a consultant for Elixirgen Therapeutics, Inc The author has no other competing interests to declare.