This gene helps some of us never forget a face

New research may help explain why a few people remember almost everyone they have met while others have difficulty recognizing members of their own family. (Credit: Nono Fara/Flickr)

The oxytocin receptor, a gene known to influence mother-infant bonding, also plays a role in the ability to remember faces.

The finding has important implications for disorders in which social information processing is disrupted—like autism spectrum disorder—and may lead to new strategies for improving social cognition in several psychiatric disorders.

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According to study author Larry Young, of the department of psychiatry at Emory University, this is the first study to demonstrate that variation in the oxytocin receptor gene influences face recognition skills.

He and colleagues point out the implication that oxytocin plays an important role in promoting our ability to recognize one another, yet about one-third of the population possesses only the genetic variant that negatively impacts that ability.

The new finding may help explain why a few people remember almost everyone they have met while others have difficulty recognizing members of their own family.

For the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied 198 families with a single autistic child because these families are known to show a wide range of variability in facial recognition skills. Two-thirds of the families were from the United Kingdom, and the remainder from Finland.

Researchers had previously found the oxytocin receptor is essential for olfactory-based social recognition in rodents, like mice and voles, and wondered whether the same gene could also be involved in human face recognition.

Familial face recognition

They examined the influence of subtle differences in oxytocin receptor gene structure on face memory competence in the parents, non-autistic siblings, and autistic child, and discovered a single change in the DNA of the oxytocin receptor had a big impact on face memory skills in the families.

This finding implies that oxytocin likely plays an important role more generally in social information processing, which is disrupted in disorders such as autism.

Additionally, this study is remarkable for its evolutionary aspect. Rodents use odors for social recognition while humans use visual facial cues.

This suggests an ancient conservation in genetic and neural architectures involved in social information processing that transcends the sensory modalities used from mouse to man.

Skuse credits Young’s previous research that found mice with a mutated oxytocin receptor failed to recognize mice they previously encountered.

“This led us to pursue more information about facial recognition and the implications for disorders in which social information processing is disrupted.”

Researchers from University College London and University of Tampere in Finland contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from the US National Institute of Mental Health and the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs as well as the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation and National Alliance for Autism Research.

Source: Emory University