‘Love hormone’ gene may be the key to your social life
You’ve likely heard the term “love potion,” either in the context of the popular song, the 90s movie with Sandra Bullock or with a friend joking at bar. But a term you might be less familiar with is “love hormone” gene. And according to new research, it may be the key to your social life.
A team of researchers led by psychologists at the University of Georgia have found that silencing a specific gene may affect human social behavior, including a person’s ability to form healthy relationships. They examined how a process known as methylation can reduce the expression of a specific gene called oxytocin, which is linked to a wide range of social behaviors.
The study’s lead author, Brian W. Haas, and his team collected saliva samples from more than 120 study participants to perform genetic tests that show the levels of methylation on the oxytocin gene. Participants also went through a battery of tests to evaluate their social skills and their brain structure and function. They were presented with brief video clips of people’s faces that began with a neutral expression and gradually changed into an emotional face. The participant’s job was to press a button as soon as they felt confident that they knew which type of emotion the face was showing.
Researchers found that participants with greater methylation of the oxytocin gene had more difficulty recognizing emotional facial expressions, and they tended to have more relationship anxiety.
“Participants with greater methylation of the oxytocin gene were less accurate in describing the emotional states of the people they saw in pictures,” Haas said. “That’s a typical characteristic associated with autism, for example.”
The researchers also used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)—a technology that measures brain activity—to examine the regions of people’s brains that were activated during various tasks. The MRI results indicated that those with increased methylation of the oxytocin gene had reduced neural activity in brain regions associated with social-cognitive processing.
“This is an important study that further establishes the link between oxytocin and interpersonal relationships,” explains Dr. Chandra Vedak, psychologist on staff at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington.
“Oxytocin is known to play an important role in positive social behaviors, such as facilitating trust and attachment between individuals,” Dr. Vedak says. “It increases certain social stimuli (similar to the way a booster antenna does for TV signals).”
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