The OXTR gene, implicit learning and social processing: Does empathy evolve from perceptual skills for details?

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Abstract

Oxytocin is an important messenger in the brain that has been linked to a variety of social functions in pharmacological studies. Besides, functional genetic variations on the oxytocin receptor gene have been repeatedly associated with social processing and functioning. Despite this knowledge, there are very few studies investigating the mechanisms that may explain the link between oxytocin and social functions. In the endeavor to fill this gap in the literature, the current study searches for associations between the prominent rs2268498 polymorphism on the oxytocin receptor gene and participants' ability to perceive and store implicit social information, which is a fundamental function in social information processing. N = 121 healthy participants were experimentally tested with an implicit learning paradigm, answered questionnaires assessing empathy and autistic traits, and were genotyped for the rs2268498 polymorphism. T-allele carriers (TT and TC genotypes) exhibited significantly better implicit learning performance than carriers of the CC-genotype, and learning performance was positively associated with self-reported empathy and negatively with self-reported autistic traits. Results indicate that differences in implicit perception and storing of environmental details while watching social interactions could be an important mechanism to explain the association between differences in endogenous oxytocin activity and social functioning.

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