TUESDAY, Nov. 15 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that
a variation in a single human gene affects how other people see you
at first glance in terms of your compassion, kindness and
The variation might directly influence your personality,
especially in terms of empathy. Or it's possible that it's
connected to something else that affects the way you act. On the
other hand, the research is based on only a few subjects, so much
more study is needed, experts say.
Still, the findings may "speak to the power of little genetic
differences to predict tangible differences in the way we behave,"
said study author Aleksandr Kogan, a postdoctoral fellow in
psychology at the University of Toronto.
Over the past five to seven years, researchers have been
exploring how genetics affect emotions, Kogan said. "What we're
learning is that, to a certain extent, we have a genetic basis that
supports a lot of the processes that make us nice."
In particular, researchers have focused on a hormone called
oxytocin, which has been linked to emotions like love and trust and
is found in a variety of animals. Higher levels of oxytocin have
been linked to higher levels of trustworthiness, empathy and
willingness to sacrifice, Kogan said.
In the new study, Kogan and colleagues focused on a gene linked
to the brain's oxytocin receptor, which is a kind of catcher's
glove that receives the hormone. They wanted to see if they could
link variations in the gene to the way that people are perceived by
The researchers compiled 20-second, silent videos of people
listening as their romantic partners told a story about a moment of
suffering in the partner's life. Then they showed the videos to 116
subjects and asked them to gauge the compassion, kindness and
trustworthiness of the people in the videos, Kogan said.
The researchers then tried to see if patterns in the genetic
makeup of the people in the videos predicted how the subjects
Those who were considered to be most trustworthy were similar
genetically in terms of the single gene. The same was true for
those who were deemed least trustworthy -- they were similar to one
another, but in a different way.
People with the "kindness" gene showed more empathetic
behaviors, like nodding their heads, smiling and making eye contact
than people with the other type of gene.
The question now is: If these links aren't a coincidence, how
are genes affecting how empathetic people appear to be to others?
Could it affect their behavior? The way their faces look? Something
In the big picture, the research could lead to better
understanding of why some people are kind and others aren't, Kogan
said. It could even lead to insight into why some people are
Paul Zak, a brain researcher and founding director of the Center
for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, in
California, said the research is interesting but not yet
"Some people would say there is now a gene for being nice to other people. That's not true at all," he said. Many other genes matter, too, he said, as do more important factors like your current physical state and your personal history.
In other words, if you're a jerk or a saint, your genes
shouldn't get all the credit -- or blame.
The study appears online in this week's issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about
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