A group of scientists from the University of Georgia might have discovered a way to make people more sociable. The specialists realized that changes to the OXT gene could significantly affect a person’s social behavior.
Brian W. Haas, who works at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Georgia, was the author of the study. He worked in collaboration with colleagues, and members from the University School of Medicine in Stanford and the Nagasaki University in this cohort.
Humans are social animals. Our interactions are affected by two main factors which subdivide into much more. First, we have the environment which will most likely shape our ability to interact with other people. But there is also the genetic modifier, and scientists from around the world have discovered that this can make socialization simpler or much more difficult for people.
In the quest to crack the puzzle that the human brain represents, scientists discovered that a hormone had an enormous impact on the social behavior of an individual. The hormone is called oxytocin, but specialists dubbed it “the love hormone.” According to the findings, this little ingredient gives people less or more tools to socialize depending on its concentration in the system. In the past, studies have revealed that people with low levels of the hormone have more problems identifying facial expressions and emotions which makes having a lasting relationship very difficult. These people don’t understand how others are feeling and get frustrated, thus insecure when socializing.
The amounts of ‘love hormone’ in the system could be regulated
The OXT gene is the one tasked with spreading the love hormone into the system, and the team led by Dr. Haas wanted to know the association between genetic modification on it and social processing on human beings. In other words, they wanted to know if by regulating the amount of oxytocin in the system they could alter a person’s social behavior. To do so, they studied a process called methylation. The latter is a process used for scientists to regulate the “genetic expression,” or performance, of a gene in particular, but it sometimes presents naturally in some individuals. It is usually used to control the protein production of some cells. Haas’ team used the social processing, self-report, behavior, and brain function and structure as a measurement.
Once ready, the research team gathered 120 volunteers for the cohort. They all provided the specialists with saliva samples which allowed them to analyze the concentrations of oxytocin. Then, they sat the participants in front of a screen to watch many different facial expressions and try to identify the emotions. Lastly, all the 120 subjects went through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), so the researchers could see their brain structure.
“People that exhibit lower OXT DNA methylation (presumably linked to higher OXTexpression) display more secure attachment styles, improved ability to recognize emotional facial expressions, greater superior temporal sulcus activity during two social-cognitive functional MRI tasks, and larger fusiform gyrus gray matter volume than people that exhibit higher OXT DNA methylation,” reads the report.
Dr. Haas’ team separated the participants into two groups, one that reported low methylation OXT genes, and one that reported a high concentration of it. In other words, they separated the 120 participants in the ones that produce a lot of oxytocin and the ones that have a regulated production.
The specialists realized that the group whose production was not limited had fewer problems with socialization. When faced with the different pictures of facial expressions, they could name the emotions without much effort and with simple words. Their MRI scans also showed something very interesting. They had more gray matter in the areas of the brain that scientists associate with social activity.
Finally, the results of the genetic testing showed that their levels of oxytocin were plenty. In contrast, the group with methylation OXT gene did poorly in the facial recognition and presented less gray matter in the same area of the brain.
The findings led the researchers to think that there is a direct link between the oxytocin production and the development of social abilities. This could explain why some people have a hard time making friends or establishing lasting sentimental relationships. Moreover, Dr. Haas says that this information could be used to improve the treatment of patients with psycho-social disorders.
As satisfying as the result was, the study was significantly small, but the researching team hopes that it will open the doors for more experimentation in this area. If scientists manage to spot what makes human act like they do, they could find a root and solution for many mental problems.
“This study shows that epigenetic modification of the structural gene for oxytocin (OXT) is an important factor associated with individual differences in social processing, including self-report, behavior, and brain function and structure in humans,” reads the paper.
The paper was published on-line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on June 20, 2016.
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) June 21, 2016