Genetic predispositions and parental bonding interact to shape adults’ physiological responses to social distress

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Parental bonding and oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene genotype each influences social abilities in adulthood. Here, we hypothesized an interaction between the two − environmental experience (parental bonding history) and genetic factors (OXTR gene genotype) − in shaping adults’ social sensitivity (physiological response to distress). We assessed heart rate and peripheral temperature (tip of the nose) in 42 male adults during presentation of distress vocalizations (distress cries belonging to female human infants and adults as well as bonobo). The two physiological responses index, respectively, state of arousal and readiness to action. Participants’ parental bonding in childhood was assessed through the self-report Parental Bonding Instrument. To assess participants’ genetic predispositions, buccal mucosa cell samples were collected, and region rs2254298 of the oxytocin receptor gene was analyzed: previous OXTR gene findings point to associations between the G allele and better sociality (protective factor) and the A allele and poorer sociality (risk factor). We found a gene * environment interaction for susceptibility to social distress: Participants with a genetic risk factor (A carriers) with a history of high paternal overprotection showed higher heart rate increase than those without this risk factor (G/G genotype) to social distress.Also, a significant effect of the interaction between paternal care and genotype on nose temperature changes was found. This susceptibility appears to represent an indirect pathway through which genes and experiences interact to shape mature social sensitivity in males.

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