Elucidating the genetic and biological substrates of social behavior serves to advance the way basic human nature is understood and improves the way genetic and biological markers can be used to prevent, diagnose, and treat people with impairments in social cognition and behavior. 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.Abstract
Across many mammalian species there exist genetic and biological systems that facilitate the tendency to be social. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide involved in social-approach behaviors in humans and others mammals. Although there exists a large, mounting body of evidence showing that oxytocin signaling genes are associated with human sociability, very little is currently known regarding the way the structural gene for oxytocin (OXT) confers individual differences in human sociability. In this study, we undertook a comprehensive approach to investigate the association between epigenetic modification of OXT via DNA methylation, and overt measures of social processing, including self-report, behavior, and brain function and structure. Genetic data were collected via saliva samples and analyzed to target and quantify DNA methylation across the promoter region of OXT. We observed a consistent pattern of results across sociability measures. People that exhibit lower OXT DNA methylation (presumably linked to higher OXT expression) 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. These findings provide empirical evidence that epigenetic modification of OXT is linked to several overt measures of sociability in humans and serve to advance progress in translational social neuroscience research toward a better understanding of the evolutionary and genetic basis of normal and abnormal human sociability.