Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Genetic variation linked to individual empathy, stress levels

Date:
November 17, 2009
Source:
Oregon State University
Summary:
Researchers have discovered a genetic variation that may contribute to how empathetic a human is, and how that person reacts to stress. In the first study of its kind, a variation in the hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin's receptor was linked to a person's ability to infer the mental state of others.

A genetic variation may contribute to how empathetic a human is, and how that person reacts to stress.
Credit: iStockphoto/Andrey Prokhorov

Researchers have discovered a genetic variation that may contribute to how empathetic a human is, and how that person reacts to stress. In the first study of its kind, a variation in the hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin's receptor was linked to a person's ability to infer the mental state of others.

Related Articles


Interestingly, this same genetic variation also related to stress reactivity. These findings could have a significant impact in adding to the body of knowledge about the importance of oxytocin, and its link to conditions such as autism and unhealthy levels of stress.

Sarina Rodrigues, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, and Laura Saslow, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, published their findings in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Rodrigues said oxytocin has already been significantly linked with social affiliation and reduction in stress. It is a peptide secreted by the pituitary gland and regulated by the hypothalamus of the brain and is best known for its role in female reproduction (it is important for labor and breastfeeding, for instance). It is also associated with social recognition, pair bonding, dampening negative emotional responses, trust, and love.

Rodrigues, who studies stress in humans, studied 200 college students, of diverse ethnicities and balanced gender. The students filled out self-reported questionnaires, as well as participated in laboratory-based sessions.

Individuals can have one of three combinations of this particular naturally occurring genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor. All humans get one copy of this gene from each parent, thus the three possible combinations, labeled in the paper as AA, AG or GG allele. The AA and AG gene group were not statistically different, so they were grouped together and compared in all tests with the GG group.

Rodrigues said the tests included a standard stress reactivity test involving white noise blasts directed in headphones after countdowns presented on the screen. Heart rate was monitored through sensors throughout the laboratory session. In general, they found that women were overall more sensitive to the stress tests, but that both men and women in the GG allele group displayed a lower increase heart rate during this task, as compared to baseline heart rate measured at the beginning of the laboratory session.

One of the tests used to measure empathy included the "Reading the Mind in Eyes" test, created by Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). Rodrigues said that this test is commonly used to discern how individuals can put themselves into the mind of another person, which overlaps with empathy, because it tests how well the participant can infer someone's emotional state by their eyes.

"In general, women do better on this test than men," Rodrigues said. "But we found a stark difference in both sexes based on the genetic variation." Those with the GG genetic variation were 22.7 percent less likely to make a mistake on the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test than the other individuals.

Rodrigues said previous research has shown that people with autism display lower scores on behavioral and dispositional empathy measures, and that a nasal spray with oxytocin increases scores in these areas.

"Our data lends credence to the claim that this genetic variation of oxytocin influences emotional processing and other-oriented behavior," she said.

However, Rodrigues cautioned against drawing too many conclusions just yet from the study's findings. She said these population trends should not be translated to individuals, meaning there are plenty of people in the AA or AG gene pool who are empathetic, caring individuals.

"I tested myself and while I am not in the GG group, I'd like to think that I am a very caring person with empathy for others," she said. "These findings can help us understand that some of us are born with a tendency to be more empathic and stress reactive than others, and that we should reach out to those who may be naturally closed-off from people because social connectivity and belongingness benefits everyone."

Natalia Garcia, Oliver P. John and Dacher Keltner, all with University of California, Berkeley, also contributed to the research, which was funded by the Metanexus Institute and the Greater Good Science Center. The studies were conducted in the laboratory of Dacher Keltner.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Oregon State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Oregon State University. "Genetic variation linked to individual empathy, stress levels." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091116163212.htm>.
Oregon State University. (2009, November 17). Genetic variation linked to individual empathy, stress levels. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091116163212.htm
Oregon State University. "Genetic variation linked to individual empathy, stress levels." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091116163212.htm (accessed November 21, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Friday, November 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Your Complicated Job Might Keep Your Brain Young

Your Complicated Job Might Keep Your Brain Young

Newsy (Nov. 20, 2014) Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found the more complex your job is, the sharper your cognitive skills will likely be as you age. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
100-Year-Old Woman Sees Ocean for First Time

100-Year-Old Woman Sees Ocean for First Time

AP (Nov. 20, 2014) Ruby Holt spent most of her 100 years on a farm in rural Tennessee, picking cotton and raising four children. She saw the ocean for the first time thanks to her assisted living center and a group that grants wishes to the elderly. (Nov. 20) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Kids React to Lammily, The Realistic Barbie Alternative

Kids React to Lammily, The Realistic Barbie Alternative

Buzz60 (Nov. 19, 2014) Artist Nickolay Lamm's Kickstarter-funded Lammily doll, based on his 'What Would Barbie Look Like as a Real Woman' project, is finally available to buy. Jen Markham explains how the doll's realistic proportions are going over with a test group of second-graders who are used to the impossible measurements of Barbie dolls. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Trans-Fat Foods Now Linked To Poor Memory

Trans-Fat Foods Now Linked To Poor Memory

Newsy (Nov. 19, 2014) A study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions shows a link between diets high in trans fats and decreased memory recall. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins