If you’re the type of person who loves getting together with friends, meeting new people, and conversing with others, new research suggests you might have been genetically “programmed” that way.
In a landmark study of 129 people, researchers discovered a “chatty” gene that makes people more sociable, and chemical tags that attach to this gene can alter how sociable people are. But this isn’t just your average interesting study; scientists say the discovery could lead to new treatments for autism and other social disorders.
Of the 129 participants, those with less of this protein had more difficulty recognizing emotional facial expressions, and were found to be more anxious about their relationships with loved ones.
Researchers found that modification of the OXT gene, the gene for oxytocin, – a “feel-good” hormone which helps mothers and babies bond – was linked to differences in social behavior in people.
This subtle method of modifying genes, called epigenetics, could provide new insight into how humans evolved sociability.
Oxytocin may be the Key
Scientists found that when the OXT gene was reduced by the process of methylation, participants produced less oxytocin.
MindBodyGreen describes methylation as:
“What is methylation? Without getting too technical, methylation is the addition of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms (called a methyl group) to another molecule. The removal of a methyl group is called demethylation. Think of billions of little on/off switches inside your body that control everything from your stress response and how your body makes energy from food, to your brain chemistry and detoxification. That’s methylation and demethylation.”
Brian Haas, of Georgia University, explained:
“An increase in methylation typically corresponds to a decrease in the expression of a gene so it affects how much a particular gene is functioning. When methylation increases on the OXT gene this may correspond to a reduction in this gene’s activity. Our study shows that this can have a profound impact on social behaviours.”
What is epigentics? Daily Mail explains:
“One method of regulating genes in the body is by adding and removing chemical groups to the DNA at specific points – a process called epigenetic modification. By adding these chemical tags, which can take the form of methyl groups, the DNA may become more tightly wound.
Methylation can either switch on or switch off certain genes depending on how they are affected. These methyl groups are thought to become attached to DNA due to changes in our environment. They are thought to be a key step in the interaction between nature and nurture.
“So stress, aging, and our diet are among the influences that can cause methyl groups to be attached to DNA. These methyl groups can also be passed on through generations, meaning the environment your parents grew up in can affect subsequent generations.”
So if you’re the chatty type and you grew up in an environment where you mixed with a lot of people, you might have this “chatty” gene. That might also explain why, if you were more of a wallflower growing you, you turned into a social butterfly as an adult.
Successfully Recognizing Emotional Expressions
For the study, Haas and his team conducted genetic tests on saliva samples collected from participants to show the levels of methylation on the OXT gene.
Participants were put through a battery of tests to evaluate their social skills, as well as their brain structure and function.
They were then shown brief video clips of people’s faces exhibiting a range of emotions, starting with a neutral expression. The participants were asked to press a button once they felt confident they recognized the emotion.
Hass told Express:
“Participants with greater methylation of the OXT gene were less accurate in describing the emotional states of the people they saw in pictures. That’s a typical characteristic associated with autism, for example.”
Using brain scans, researchers examined the regions of the brain triggered by various tasks.
The researchers discovered those with increased methylation of the OXT gene had reduced activity in brain regions associated with sociability. These individuals were also found to have reduced grey matter within an area called the fusiform gyrus, which is important for face processing and social cognition.
“All our tests indicate the OXT gene plays an important role in social behavior and brain function.”
Helping to Treat Social Disorders … One Day
Much more work is necessary to more clearly define the role of oxytocin and the genes that control it, but Haas said he has high hopes his research could one day lead to new and improved treatments for a variety of social disorders.
“Methylation is a dynamic process and level of methylation can change over the course of a person’s lifetime. But it may be possible to alter the level of methylation with some type of medication that could help people who have abnormalities in social cognition.”
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.