Oxytocin Gene Variations May Determine Kindness

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A new clinical study has found that our level of empathy and compassion may be determined by the oxytocin receptor gene, and that even strangers can detect which version of this gene we possess.


A fascinating new study reveals how profoundly our genetic make-up can influence not only our personality and behavior, but the perceptions that others (including strangers) may have of us, as well.  This new research study appears in the journal,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oxytocin is a hormone that appears to have a variety of functions in humans, particularly in pregnant women and new mothers.  Oxytocin plays very important roles in labor and, following delivery, in the stimulation of milk secretion from the breast in response to suckling.  However, the biological effects of oxytocin are not limited to pregnant women and new mothers.  Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone,” as it is thought contribute to the feelings of contentment, happiness, and bonding that typically occur in the early stages of romantic relationships.  Oxytocin has also been, more generally, linked to feelings of empathy and sensitivity towards others, while syndromes associated with little or no oxytocin production in the brain have been, conversely, associated with narcissistic, manipulative, and even sociopathic behavior.

As with most genes in the body, the gene which produces the oxytocin receptor (which is necessary for oxytocin to exert its effects within the body) has multiple different natural forms.  Some forms of the oxytocin receptor gene have been shown to increase the positive effects of oxytocin, while other variants of the oxytocin receptor gene appear to decrease the favorable effects of oxytocin.  In this fascinating study, researchers first tested 46 research volunteers to determine which variant of the oxytocin receptor gene was present in their bodies.  Next, these 46 volunteers were grouped into 23 pairs, in which one volunteer was asked to tell the other volunteer about a stressful or otherwise difficult experience in their life.  (These discussion sessions were videotaped for the second part of this research study.)  Subsequently, volunteer observers, none of whom knew the oxytocin receptor gene status of the other 46 volunteers, were then asked to watch the videotaped discussions, and to rate the 46 other volunteers in terms of empathy and kindness.

The findings of this innovative clinical research study were striking.  In the vast majority of cases, the “observer volunteers” watching the videotaped discussions could accurately select out the “discussion volunteers” who had the “AA” variant (which is associated with decreased levels of empathy and compassion) and the “GG” variant of the oxytocin receptor (which is the variant that has been most closely associated with the “empathy and kindness” effects of oxytocin).  While nobody is suggesting that our genetic make-up completely dictates our personality or behavior, the findings of this intriguing clinical research study suggest that, at least in the case of the oxytocin reception gene, naturally-occurring variations in our genetic make-up may, indeed, have a potentially profound impact on personality and behavior.  Even more provocative is the finding that, in the case of the oxytocin gene receptor, even casual observers are able to select out other people who possess a specific genetic variant with a high degree of accuracy, simply by assessing their interactions with others.  Once again, it is important to note that having a single specific form of one or more genes does not entirely predict an individual’s personality or behavior.  However, in the case of the oxytocin receptor gene, it appears that even strangers can readily identify which among us has the more “pro-social” variant of this gene, simply by observing how we interact with other people!

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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author

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