Researchers find that a gene affects social behavior, including one's ability to form healthy and long-lasting relationships. The findings could explain why some people find it harder to build relationships that last.

The gene in question is the OXT gene, which produces the hormone oxytocin. Previous studies have linked this specific hormone to several social behaviors. Oxytocin is sometimes called the "love hormone."

In the recent study, researchers from the University of Georgia analyzed over 120 people who took genetic tests using saliva samples. The participants' social skills, brain function and structure were also assessed.

The researchers used brief video clips showing people's faces to analyze the participants' ability to recognize emotional facial expressions. To study the brain structure and functions, the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

What they found could potentially explain why some people find it easier to form lasting, healthy bonds, and others the other way around.

The participants with low OXT gene activity had difficulty in identifying emotional facial expressions. They were also more likely to become worried about their relationships with people they love.

In terms of brain structure and function, the low-OXT gene activity participants had less gray matter in the part of the brain that plays a vital role in social thinking and face processing. These participants also had less brain activity in the regions linked to social thinking.

"All of our tests indicate that the OXT gene plays an important role in social behavior and brain function," said lead author and psychology assistant professor Brian Haas.

The research team also studied how methylation, which is a process that can reduce specific gene expressions, can affect the OXT gene.

"When methylation increases on the OXT gene, this may correspond to a reduction in this gene's activity. Our study shows that this can have a profound impact on social behaviors," said Haas.

Methylation levels vary over the course of a lifetime. As a dynamic process, this suggests that altering the levels of methylation using medication is possible. It has the potential to help people who have social cognition problems.

Haas added that the recent findings are preliminary and further studies are needed. Nevertheless, research has the potential to help in the development of new treatments and interventions for several social disorders.

The University of Georgia researchers worked with colleagues from Emory University and Stanford University School of Medicine. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 20.

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