Mother's Empathy and Epigenetic Changes to Oxytocin Gene Link

Medical Research News

Author: University of Fukui, Japan
Published: 2020/12/09 - Updated: 2021/02/27
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Research article regarding study that shed light on inter-connectedness among Oxytocin gene, brain structure, and maternal empathy. Parenting behavior is deeply linked to the ability to empathize with one's children. Our ability to feel and understand the emotions of others, or "empathy," is at the core of our prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and caregiving.

Introduction

Modification of the oxytocin gene is correlated with personal distress, an emotional response related to empathy, scientists show. Parenting behavior is deeply linked to the ability to empathize with one's children. Thus, to better understand why certain parents react to certain situations in a certain way, it is crucial to gain insight into how empathy is shaped. Scientists from the University of Fukui in Japan have now shed light on the interconnectedness among the oxytocin gene, brain structure, and maternal empathy.

Main Digest

Our ability to feel and understand the emotions of others, or "empathy," is at the core of our prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and caregiving. Scientists have recognized two types of empathy: cognitive and affective.

Both these types strongly predict how parents behave with their children and can subsequently influence child psychological development. Therefore, understanding how empathy is shaped can help us to decipher parental behavior.

DNA Methylation

When it comes to biological mechanisms of empathy, scientists are particularly interested in oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone." High oxytocin levels predict sensitive parenting, but it isn't clear how the oxytocin-related gene might generate variation in empathy and parental behavior. One possible explanation is epigenetic changes to the gene - a way of altering gene function without changing the actual DNA sequence. Specifically, "DNA methylation" - the addition of a chemical group called the "methyl" group at specific locations - in the oxytocin gene (called OXT) has been associated with personality traits and brain structure in humans. This raises a question: can methylation of OXT influence empathy in mothers? A team of scientists at University of Fukui in Japan, led by Prof. Akemi Tomoda, decided to find out, in a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Continued below image.
Methylation of the oxytocin gene (OXT) is positively correlated with personal distress, a negative emotional response to others negative emotions and an element of empathy (A-D).
Methylation of the oxytocin gene (OXT) is positively correlated with personal distress, a negative emotional response to others negative emotions and an element of empathy (A-D).
Continued...

Voxel Based Morphometry

Specifically, the scientists wanted to investigate how methylation of OXT, brain structure, and empathy are related in mothers. For this, they measured OXT methylation through analyses of saliva samples from 57 Japanese mothers who were caring for at least one young child. Moreover, they used an MRI technique called "voxel-based morphometry" to examine the size of brain regions related to OXT methylation, aiming to identify any connections between brain morphology and DNA methylation. This is part of an exciting new field called "imaging epigenetics" that seeks to explain behavior through linking epigenetic changes with brain structures and/or functions. Finally, they used a well-established psychology questionnaire to determine the levels of cognitive and affective empathy they have.

The findings showed that OXT methylation was positively correlated with a mother's "personal distress," relating to harsh parenting. Additionally, OXT methylation was negatively correlated with the volume of gray matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus. In other words, high methylation of the oxytocin gene lowered brain volume in the inferior temporal gyrus while increasing personal distress. "This is the first study to find a correlation between DNA methylation of the oxytocin gene with empathy, and the first to link that methylation with both empathy and variation in brain structure," Prof. Tomoda commented. "So, we've gained very important insight into the relationship between this gene and the phenotype - or the physical manifestation of gene expression."

The researchers also used statistical analyses to find out whether DNA methylation affected changes to brain structure, or vice versa. But they did not find a significant effect of gray matter volume of the inferior temporal gyrus on OXT methylation and empathy. This means that brain structure did not appear to mediate the relationship between epigenetic changes to the OXT gene and empathy.

These findings shed light on the complex processes involved in maternal empathy, which could have a real contribution in understanding psychological development in children. As Prof. Tomoda explains;

"Our study really helps to clarify the link between oxytocin gene methylation and parental empathy, as well as the effects on empathy-related parts of the brain. This understanding augments efforts to better understand maltreated children and contributes to their healthy development."

Reference Paper

Title of original paper: Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin gene is associated with gray matter volume and trait empathy in mother.

Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology

DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.105026

Professor Akemi Tomoda

Dr. Akemi Tomoda is a Professor at the Research Center for Child Mental Development of the University of Fukui and Head of the Department of Psychosocial Support for Nurturing. Her research interests include child development, pediatric neurology, neuroimaging, attachment, and child maltreatment. She has published over 100 papers on these topics. She is also part of numerous prestigious academic organizations, such as the Society for Neuroscience, Japan Neuroscience Society, and the Asian and Oceanian Child Neurology Association.

Funding Information

This study was supported by a Grant-in-Aid for "Creating a Safe and Secure Living Environment in the Changing Public and Private Spheres" from the;

Attribution/Source(s):

This quality-reviewed publication was selected for publishing by the editors of Disabled World due to its significant relevance to the disability community. Originally authored by University of Fukui, Japan, and published on 2020/12/09 (Edit Update: 2021/02/27), the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or brevity. For further details or clarifications, University of Fukui, Japan can be contacted at www.u-fukui.ac.jp/eng/. NOTE: Disabled World does not provide any warranties or endorsements related to this article.

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