Can a Genetic Variation Boost Empathy and Reduce Stress?

By Brett Israel | November 18, 2009 7:06 am

heart-hands-webOne single difference in the human genome may play a role in behaviors such as empathizing and responding to stress. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on a single gene, called OXTR, which carries the design and production blueprint for cells scattered throughout the heart, uterus, spinal cord and brain that serve as docking stations for a chemical called oxytocin [Los Angeles Times]. Oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy when we interact with others in a nurturing or bonding way; it has also been shown to help mice stay calm when under stress.

The researchers decided to investigate a region on the OXTR gene associated with decreased social interaction in humans to see if small changes correlated to a person’s sociability and ability to handle stress. They put 192 college students through experiments to measure empathy and stress. One in four of the subjects had a particular variation of that gene region, and those subjects were significantly better at accurately reading the emotions of others by observing their faces than were the remaining three-quarters of subjects [Los Angeles Times]. The people in this subset were also less likely to startle during the stress test, and reported that they were generally chill folks.

Study coauthor Sarina Rodrigues provides the usual caveat that genes alone don’t determine our behavior and cautioned against reading too much into their discovery. Lots of people without the gene variation are able to understand and care about other people’s emotions, Rodrigues said [Telegraph]. So what are we supposed to do with this information? That’s not entirely clear, and the results need to be repeated in a larger group. Still, the work is “one solid step forward” in understanding the role of oxytocin in human social behavior, says neuroeconomist Paul Zak, … who has studied the effects of oxytocin on economic decisions [ScienceNOW Daily News].

One thing we do know is that, starting this weekend, if your employer somehow finds out that you are prone to high stress, at least they can’t fire you for it.

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Image: flickr / le venti le cri

MORE ABOUT: emotions, PNAS
  • Dr. Doris Jeanette

    Be careful with thinking she or he can’t fire you. A person with good emotional health is assertive too! Also take note of how the researchers define stress. They seem to be confusing it with anxiety so their results are messy. What is note worthy is the source of the hormone, the pituitary. This is very interesting and not a surprise. I would talk more about inhibition and less about genes.

  • Christina Viering

    Good point!

  • Nick

    They may not be able to fire you, but they can make your life more stressful until you fire yourself. :)

  • Ron Coffey

    Throughout evolution, various hominids competed and fought; only one prevailed. Early Homo sapiens apparently killed off all other bipeds. Most (but thankfully not all) humans seem to have inherited a “fear, hate, kill” gene. Could this be another variant of the gene for oxytocin? Will we be able to eliminate this gene before humans totally destroy one another?

  • Jessica Hansen

    An interesting observation, however the statement that “Homo sapiens killed off all other bipeds” is incorrect. H. sapien rests on one of the last rungs in the evolutionary ladder, most bipeds were already extinct by the time H. sapien was fully developed and distinct from other species. While they did exist at the same time as Neanderthals, there is little evidence to say that the two interacted due to morphological differences and living in distinct habitats. Climate change is the ultimate cause of extinction, which is the prevalent theory accounting for the disappearance of Neanderthals. There is no evidence that H. sapien “killed off” any other species, but rather they were able to survive environmental changes that caused other’s extinction.

    Oxytocin is a chemical hormone, present in various levels at different times in different individuals. While there could be genes coding for higher aggression, it is doubtful that we can ever eliminate entire genes from the human genome. Doing so would require genetic manipulation of every human zygote in the world!


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