The capacity to remember faces previously seen is strikingly variable between individuals, and differences in that skill are also highly heritable, implying that genetic variation exerts an important influence. Research with rodents has shown the oxytocin receptor plays a critical role in conspecific recognition. Skuse and colleagues examined whether genetic variants of the oxytocin receptor affect face recognition memory in families with an autistic child. Previous research has shown that impaired social perception, characteristic of autism, extends to the first-degree relatives of autistic individuals, implying heritable risk. Assessments of face recognition memory, discrimination of facial emotions, and direction of gaze detection were standardized for age and sex.

They found that a single oxytocin receptor polymorphism accounted for up to 10% of variation in their test performance, in both UK and Finnish populations. Approximately 35% of family members were homozygous for the risk genotype. The authors suggest that a critical role for the oxytocin system in social recognition has been conserved across perceptual boundaries through evolution, from olfaction in rodents to visual memory in humans.

Skuse DH, Lori A, Cubells JF, Lee I, Conneely KN, Puura K, Lehtimäki T, Binder EB and Young LJ: Common polymorphism in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is associated with human social recognition skills. PNAS 111(5):1987–1992 (2014);  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302985111

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