Facial Recognition Influenced By Oxytocin Receptor Gene
December 24, 2013

Gene That Influences Bonding Also Found To Impact Facial Recognition

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The same gene that influences bonding between mothers and their infant children, as well as the attachment between partners in a monogamous relationship, could also be involved in the ability to remember faces.

The gene in question is the oxytocin receptor, a member of the G-protein coupled receptor family which receives chemical signals from the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. The receptors modulate a variety of behaviors, including stress, anxiety, bonding, maternal behavior, social memory and recognition.

In a study scheduled to appear in an online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that the discovery could help diagnose and treat autism spectrum disorder and other conditions in which a person’s ability to process social information is adversely affected.

In addition, the authors report that the findings could also help experts develop new methods of improving social cognition skills in patients suffering from serious psychiatric disorders. Researchers from Emory University, University College London and the University of Tampere in Finland were involved in the research.

According to author Dr. Larry Young of the Emory University School of Medicine and Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN), this is the first paper to demonstrate that variation in the oxytocin receptor gene has an impact on an individual's facial recognition skill.

He and his colleagues stated that while oxytocin “plays an important role in promoting our ability to recognize one another… about one-third of the population possesses only the genetic variant that negatively impacts that ability,” the university said in a statement. “They say this finding may help explain why a few people remember almost everyone they have met while others have difficulty recognizing members of their own family.”

Dr. Young’s team analyzed 198 families with one autistic child, as those families had previously been found to demonstrate a wide range of variability when it came to the ability to recognize faces. Approximately 66 percent of the families hailed from the UK, while the rest of them resided in Finland, the university said.

Previously, researchers from Emory University discovered that the oxytocin receptor played a vital role in olfactory-based social recognition in rodents. While attempting to discern whether or not the same gene played a similar role in people, they looked at how subtle differences in the structure of the receptor gene impacted facial memory skills in parents, autistic children and their non-autistic brothers and sisters.

The study authors “discovered a single change in the DNA of the oxytocin receptor had a big impact on face memory skills in the families,” the university said. “According to Young, this finding implies that oxytocin likely plays an important role more generally in social information processing, which is disrupted in disorders such as autism.”

“Additionally, this study is remarkable for its evolutionary aspect,” it added. “Rodents use odors for social recognition while humans use visual facial cues. This suggests an ancient conservation in genetic and neural architectures involved in social information processing that transcends the sensory modalities used from mouse to man.”