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Facial Recognition Gene Identified

Dec 30, 2013 02:05 PM EST

The same gene known to play a role in mother-infant bonding and couple bonding in monogamous species may also be behind a person's ability to remember faces, a new study suggests.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research points to variations in the oxytocin receptor gene as an important player behind facial recognition. However, as the researchers note, about one-third of people have only the genetic variant which negatively impacts that ability, which could help explain why some seem to remember everyone they've ever met while others have a hard time recognizing even family members.

Prior to the study, researchers from Emory University discovered that the oxytocin receptor is crucial for olfactory-based social recognition in rodents, which led them to wonder if the same might be true in the case of human face recognition.

In order to find out, the scientists teamed up with researchers from around the world to examine the effect of small differences in oxytocin receptor gene structure on facial recognition in nearly 200 families with an autistic child. They chose the families due to the wide range of facial recognition ability that tends to exist in families with an autistic member.

The results indicated that a single change in the DNA of the oxytocin receptor had a significant impact - a finding that, according to Larry Young, from Emory's School of Medicine, suggests oxytocin plays a key role more generally in social information processing.

From an evolutionary aspect, the study provides an intriguing link between rodents' use of social recognition and humans' 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," Emory University wrote in a statement.

According to co-author David Skuse, from University of College London, key to the new research was the previous discovery that mice with a mutated oxytocin receptor were unable to recognize mice they'd met before.

"This led us to pursue more information about facial recognition and the implications for disorders in which social information processing is disrupted," he said.

Going forward, the researchers plan to work together to apply the findings to developing techniques for improving social cognition in psychiatric disorders.

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