A genetic variation discovered by researchers could be linked to both empathy and how a person reacts to stress. Sarina Rodrigues, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, and Laura Saslow, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, found a variation in oxytocin’s receptor. This hormone is linked to a person’s ability to infer the mental state of others. This study could provide significant insight into conditions such as autism.
The pair studied 200 college students and found three combinations of a naturally occurring genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor. Everyone, the researchers explain, gets one copy of this gene from each parent so there are three possible combinations: AA, AG, or GG. They grouped the AA and AG groups together because there was not much significance between the two. The studied showed that the GG allele group displayed a lower increased heart rate during the stress test and more likely to read emotions in others (empathy).
“Our data lends credence to the claim that this genetic variation of oxytocin influences emotional processing and other-oriented behavior,” Rodrigues said. However, she noted, population trends should not be translated to individuals as one person who is in the AA or AG gene pool could be very empathetic.