Social behavior affected by epigenetic modification of a single gene

A study in the journal PNAS reports that epigenetic modification of one gene impacts human social behaviors. The OXT gene is responsible for production of the hormone oxytocin, which is known to play a role in human sociability.  Researchers collected genetic data from the saliva of 120 people and found that decreased methylation, and therefore greater activity, of the oxytocin gene was linked to feeling more secure about relationships, a greater ability to recognize emotional facial expressions, and differences in brain regions associated with social processing.

 

Dr. Sarina Saturn, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Portland (webpage):

Expertise: Neuroscience and social psychology; the biology underlying prosocial emotions and behaviors.

“This study presents very intriguing data linking methylation of the OXT gene to attachment style, emotion recognition, superior temporal sulcus activity during social-cognitive tasks, and fusiform gyrus volume. This complements previous work linking similar epigenetic modification of this specific gene to maternal care, autism, social anxiety, and neural processing to social stimuli and emotional faces. Altogether, this is a very exciting area of investigation and represents a new frontier of social psychology. I personally would want this work to lead to awareness and behavioral interventions to help those who suffer from abuse, neglect, or social deficits.

“Oxytocin is definitely mischaracterized and overgeneralized by both the scientific community and the press. For example, exogenous (administered) oxytocin can boost prosocial emotions (trust, love, generosity, closeness), ‘anti-social’ emotions (greed, envy, outgroup hate, ethnocentrism), or nothing at all (many null results have been generated, but these are difficult to publish). Most endogenous (naturally circulating) oxytocin studies show that this peptide is indeed involved on social affiliation among family, friends, and strangers. Genetic studies of oxytocin’s lone receptor have illustrated that naturally-occurring inborn differences in the OXT gene play a huge role in our social and emotional profiles. Epigenetic studies like this show that experience-dependent modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is a way that our “sociability” is dynamic and subject to change.

“We think of genetic predispositions as ‘nature’ in that our DNA sequence is stable and epigenetic profiles as ‘nurture’ in the sense that methylation is typically due to experiential or environmental factors. One fascinating aspect of epigenetic research (in both humans and animals) is that it suggests that our epigenome is ‘listening’ to our life experiences and developmental cues and thus provides a dynamic mechanism whereby gene expression can be altered by ‘remembering’ what happened to us. Many of our personality traits are dictated by our genes (inherited), but this area of research implies that our DNA can also learn from powerful emotional and social experiences and as a result, how our brains and bodies respond to social stimuli.

“One major limitation of this study is that the social tasks used in most epigenetic studies don’t involve naturalistic social interactions, but rather probe the processing of social information when participants are in isolation while completing self-report questionnaires or experiments in an fMRI machine (neuroimaging scanner).”

 

Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

No interests declared.

 

Reference:

‘Epigenetic modification of OXT and human sociability’ by Haas et al, published in PNAS on Monday, June 20, 2016.

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