A new study has suggested that the oxytocin receptor, a gene known to influence mother-infant bonding and pair bonding in monogamous species, also plays a special role in the ability to remember faces.
The research by a team of researchers from Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, the University College London in the United Kingdom and University of Tampere in Finland, has important implications for disorders in which social information processing is disrupted, including autism spectrum disorder. In addition, the finding may lead to new strategies for improving social cognition in several psychiatric disorders.
Author Larry Young, PhD, of Yerkes, the Department of Psychiatry in Emory's School of Medicine and Emory's Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) and co-author David Skuse pointed out the implication that oxytocin plays an important role in promoting our ability to recognize one another, yet about one-third of the population possesses only the genetic variant that negatively impacts that ability.
They said this finding may help explain why a few people remember almost everyone they have met while others have difficulty recognizing members of their own family.
The research team studied 198 families with a single autistic child because these families were known to show a wide range of variability in facial recognition skills; two-thirds of the families were from the United Kingdom, and the remainder from Finland.
They examined the influence of subtle differences in oxytocin receptor gene structure on face memory competence in the parents, non-autistic siblings and autistic child, and discovered a single change in the DNA of the oxytocin receptor had a big impact on face memory skills in the families.
According to Young, this finding implies that oxytocin likely plays an important role more generally in social information processing, which is disrupted in disorders such as autism.
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences....