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Low “Love Hormone” Activity May Affect Social Skills

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A new study has found that lower activity of the “love hormone” may affect a person’s social abilities and behavior, including forming healthy relationships.

The OXT gene plays a part in producing oxytocin, the hormone linked to numerous social behaviors in humans and other mammals. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin is also credited for people being talkative, or more comfortable in social situations. The process of producing oxytocin is known as methylation.

In a report from US News, researchers from the University of Georgia evaluated 129 people, conducting genetic tests and examining social skills, brain function, and brain structure. The researchers found that those who had a lower level of activity of the OXT gene had more difficulty recognizing emotional facial expressions, struggled more in social interactions and were more anxious about their relationships.

“Methylation restricts how much a gene is expressed,” lead author Brian Haas, an assistant professor of psychology, said. “An increase in methylation typically corresponds to a decrease in the expression of a gene, so it affects how much a particular gene is functioning. When methylation increases on the OXT gene, this may correspond to a reduction in this gene’s activity. Our study shows that this can have a profound impact on social behaviors.”

The same people also showed less activity in brain regions linked to social thinking, and had less gray matter in the part of the brain necessary for processing faces and social abilities, according to the study.

In a press release, Haas said,

All of our tests indicate that the OXT gene plays an important role in social behavior and brain function.

While the findings are preliminary, and further research is necessary, the study could pave the way for new, more efficient treatments for some social disorders, according to Haas.

Social disorders are characterized by excessive or unreasonable fears of social situations and interactions with others. There are many disorders that can fall under this broad umbrella term, such as social anxiety phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorder and depression. Some of these are also considered mental illnesses.

All social disorders typically stem from anxiety, self-consciousness and in extreme conditions, panic attacks. People who suffer from these disorders tend to be afraid of being closely watched, judged and criticized; they are fearful of making mistakes, looking bad in front of others or being embarrassed, or are severely affected when something does not go the way they want it to.

When not addressed, social anxiety and phobias can negatively affect a person’s daily life, including school, work, relationships and social activities. Symptoms generally include sweating, rapid heartbeats, confusion, nervousness, blushing, muscle tension, an upset stomach or diarrhea.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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