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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6 Comments on "Oxytocin Gene Variations May Determine Kindness"

  1. Christine on Thu, 1st Dec 2011 1:04 pm 

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web.

  2. Paul Sanchez on Tue, 6th Dec 2011 5:08 am 

    Straight to the point and well written! Why can’t everyone else be like this?

  3. Latha on Sun, 29th Apr 2012 6:37 am 

    It’s not fair, but, currently there is not laigsletion that prevents this type of discrimination by an insurance company. I, myself, visited a Genetic Counselor to talk about the possibility of having the BRCA gene. We looked over my family history and then the counselor advised that there is no protection against an insurance company dropping your coverage if they see the genetic testing in your file, and there is no protection against the Insurance company denying your claims should you get the disease.The best thing that you can do, if you know there is a high risk of Breast cancer (and even ovarian cancer, as there is a link between the two) for you, is to begin having mammograms as early as possible and having any unusual lumps checked out right away. Do a monthly self-exam. Talk to your doctor about the best time of the month to do the exam as the tissues change due to hormonal fluctuations. Breast tissue is on the dense side until about 35, but, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have baseline scans done if you are younger than 35.One thing to consider, also, if you undergo the testing an are found to have the gene and elect to have the prophylactic mastectomy you can still get Breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen website has excellent information regarding genetic testing, prophylactic mastectomies and how to reduce your risk of Breast cancer.My choice was to opt to be more proactive with screenings rather than go through with genetic testing. Until laigsletion is put in place to protect those who have undergone testing from being discriminated against by insurance companies, I don’t see a real benefit to patients who opt for the testing. Good communication of your concerns with your physician should lead to early prevention and detection techniques.

  4. Bayu on Tue, 1st May 2012 10:40 pm 

    you are better off not gttnieg tested, it is not really a reliable predictor of Breast cancer and a double mastectomy is very drastic for something that may or may not happen ..it is better to get your yearly exams and do monthly self Breast exams, immediately contact your GYN if you notice a suspicious lump or abnormalityDoes every woman with an inherited altered BRCA gene get cancer?A woman with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 alteration is at higher risk for developing breast, ovarian, and other cancers than a woman without an alteration. However, not every woman who has an altered BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will get cancer, because genes are not the only factor that affects cancer risk.Most cases of Breast cancer do not involve altered genes that are inherited. At most, about 1 in 10 Breast cancer cases can be explained by inherited alterations in BRCA1 and 2 genes.Testing for Breast and ovarian cancer risk will not give you a simple yes or no answer. If a gene alteration is found, this will tell that you have an increased risk of gttnieg cancer, but it will not tell if or when cancer will develop. If an alteration is not found, it still is no guarantee that cancer won’t develop

  5. admin on Sun, 6th May 2012 7:56 pm 

    The estimated lifetime risk of developing breast cancer associated with BRCA gene mutations is on the order of 75 to 85 percent for affected women, while the estimated lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is 30 to 40 percent. (BRCA2 gene mutations can also increase the risk of prostate cancer in men.) This very high risk of breast cancer can be reduced, significantly, by taking estrogen-blocking medications for a period of 5 years, and some women with BRCA gene mutations opt for this approach (along with very close surveillance) as an alternative to bilateral mastectomy.

    On the other hand, ovarian cancer is rather difficult to detect in its earliest stages, and so most women with BRCA gene mutations will undergo removal of their tubes and ovaries once they have completed childbearing.

    Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS

    Editor, Weekly Health Update

    Author, “A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race”

  6. Oxytocin May Deter Men From Starting Extramarital Affairs | Weekly Health Update on Sun, 18th Nov 2012 9:51 pm 

    […] I noted in a previous column (Oxytocin & Human Kindness), oxytocin is a hormone that appears to have a variety of important functions in humans.  For […]

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