Study Alert: Epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene

The study describes how the oxytocin receptor gene can be turned up or turned down in response to different life experiences. Know someone who doesn’t trust anyone or someone who would trust a stranger with their life? There might be underlying genetic differences that create the predisposition to either types of behavior, and then epigenetic modifications to the Oxytocin Receptor gene that continue to reinforces or refute those initial circumstantial tendencies.

Study Link Here

I’m endlessly fascinated by the the factors that influence personality and the way we relate to others. The nature vs nurture argument really is no longer an argument, but rather a complementary and somwhat equally weighted developmental schema that rests upon, not a static foundation, but a dynamically responsive biochemical and epigenetically informed feedback loop that reinforces our experiential and relationally derived psychological tendencies.

Oxytocin has been called the “love molecule” by some, and plays a major role in social bonding. The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) has been studied extensively, and there are numerous SNPs that have been correlated with a number of psychological and social tendencies. Empathy, anxiety, in-group/out-group behavior, trust, facial recognition, emotional literacy, generosity, wound healing, and stress response are some of the traits that have been related to variations in OXTR. (For a super comprehensive collection of studies and summaries of findings, go here: https://selfhacked.com/…/the-social-chilled-out-and-empath…/)

But, despite these studies, the initial tendencies we were born with don’t necessarily create the final outcome. The article listed below outlines some of what’s currently known about the epigenetic modifications of OXTR, or biochemical markings that turn up or down the activity of the gene. Its now well established that life experiences, habits, or environmental factors can directly influence epigenetic expression of genes, and its also been established that trans-generational epigenetic modifications can be inherited. In the studies referenced, Methylation markers (which turn down the expression of genes) were analyzed to determine how active OXTR in individuals with different traits.

“There is first evidence that OXTR methylation is associated with autism, high callous-unemotional traits, and differential activation of brain regions involved in social perception. Furthermore, psychosocial stress exposure might dynamically regulate OXTR. Given evidence that epigenetic states of genes can be modified by experiences, especially those occurring in sensitive periods early in development, we conclude with a discussion on the effects of traumatic experience on the developing oxytocin system. Epigenetic modification of genes involved in oxytocin signaling might be involved in the mechanisms mediating the long-term influence of early adverse experiences on socio-behavioral outcomes.”

The important thing to take into consideration here, is that methylation is a dynamic process, (one of the studies referenced in this paper shows changes within 90 minutes of stress exposure) and can be altered by life experiences or habits. While there aren’t enough studies to show this, I imagine that regular positive social interaction, intimate relationships, or certain mindfulness practices could change the methylation of OXTR, acting as a physiological mirror for the positive psychological attributes that accompany those practices. The study linked here describes positive effects from mindfulness meditation in certain carriers of a OXTR polymorphism, while others with a different variant did not subjectively report benefit from the training. https://uncch.pure.elsevier.com/…/common-variant-in-oxtr-pr…

I’d love to see a follow up study repeating this and looking at OXTR methylation…

I find this type of work fascinating because it adds another dimension to psychological models of behavior and relationship. Understanding more about the very basic levels of biochemical code just adds to the richness and complexity of the human experience. It only becomes reductionistic if one believes that “this is the important part.” But, broadening one’s perspective to include this understanding becomes a tremendous asset for more intimately perceiving the factors that create dynamic interaction between self and other. Perhaps this is my GG allele of rs53576 speaking, but I actually can find greater empathy for understanding the behavior of other people by incorporating an epigenetic understanding of how BOTH our physiological state and previous experience informs our psychosocial tendencies.

Its amazing to me how much this branch of science is in its infancy. I look forward to a cohesive marriage of this type of work with more traditional models of psychology and spirituality. They’re all talking about the same thing, but just identifying different layers that influence each other up and down stream.

K, thanks for reading. Gonna go snuggle now.

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