Author: University of Fukui, Japan (i): Contact: www.u-fukui.ac.jp/eng/
Published: December 9th, 2020
Table of contents and important points:
Research article on studies that reveal the interconnection between the oxytocin gene, brain structure, and maternal empathy.
Parents’ behavior is closely related to the ability to empathize with their children.
Our ability to feel and understand others’ emotions, or “empathy,” is at the core of our prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and caring.
Research news on a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology that reveals the interconnection between the oxytocin gene, brain structure, and mother’s empathy. This understanding reinforces efforts to better understand abused children and contributes to their healthy development.
Deeply rooted – maternal empathy related to “epigenetic” changes in the oxytocin gene
The modification of the oxytocin gene correlates with personal stress, an emotional response related to empathy, as scientists show.
Parents’ behavior is closely related to the ability to empathize with their children. In order to better understand why certain parents react in certain ways to certain situations, it is important to gain some insight into the design of empathy. Scientists at the University of Fukui in Japan have now shed light on the connection between the oxytocin gene, the brain structure and the mother’s empathy.
Our ability to feel and understand others’ emotions, or “empathy,” is at the core of our prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and caring. Scientists have recognized two types of empathy: cognitive and affective.
- Cognitive empathy involves understanding another person’s emotions on an intellectual level, taking into account one person’s situation and reaction (e.g., “putting yourself in the shoes of another person”).
- Affective empathy, on the other hand, is a type of emotional contagion where you instinctively feel a person’s emotions after observing their expression or other mood indicators.
Both types strongly predict how parents will behave with their children and can subsequently influence the child’s psychological development. When we understand how empathy is shaped, we can decipher parental behavior.
When it comes to the biological mechanisms of empathy, scientists are particularly interested in oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”. High levels of oxytocin predict sensitive parenting, but it’s not clear how the oxytocin-related gene can lead to variations in empathy and parental behavior. One possible explanation is epigenetic changes in the gene – a way of changing gene function without changing the actual DNA sequence. In particular, “DNA methylation” – the addition of a chemical group called a “methyl” group to specific locations – in the oxytocin gene (called OXT) has been linked to personality traits and brain structure in humans. This begs the question: can OXT methylation affect maternal empathy? A team of scientists at the University of Fukui in Japan, led by Prof. Akemi Tomoda, decided to find out in a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.
In particular, the scientists wanted to investigate how the methylation of OXT, the brain structure and empathy in mothers are related. They measured OXT methylation by analyzing saliva samples from 57 Japanese mothers who were caring for at least one small child. In addition, they used an MRI technique called “voxel-based morphometry” to study the size of brain regions related to OXT methylation to identify possible links between brain morphology and DNA methylation. This is part of an exciting new field called Imaging Epigenetics that seeks to explain behavior by linking epigenetic changes to brain structures and / or functions. Finally, they used a well-established psychology questionnaire to determine their level of cognitive and affective empathy.
The methylation of the oxytocin gene (OXT) correlates positively with personal stress, a negative emotional response to negative emotions of others, and an element of empathy (AD).
The results showed that OXT methylation positively correlated with a mother’s “personal stress” associated with hard parenting. In addition, OXT methylation was negatively correlated with gray matter volume in the lower right temporal gyrus. In other words, high methylation of the oxytocin gene decreased brain volume in the inferior temporal gyrus and increased personal stress at the same time. “This is the first study to find a correlation between DNA methylation of the oxytocin gene and empathy, and the first to link this methylation to both empathy and variations in brain structure,” commented Prof. Tomoda. “So we got very important insights into the relationship between this gene and the phenotype – or into the physical manifestation of gene expression.”
The researchers also used statistical analysis to find out whether DNA methylation affects changes in brain structure or vice versa. However, they found no significant effect of the gray matter volume of the inferior temporal gyrus on methylation and empathy of OXT. This means that the brain structure did not seem to mediate the relationship between epigenetic changes in the OXT gene and empathy.
These findings shed light on the complex processes of maternal empathy that could make a real contribution to understanding psychological development in children. Prof. Tomoda explains: “Our study really helps clarify the relationship between the methylation of the oxytocin gene and parental empathy, and the effects on empathy-related parts of the brain. This understanding reinforces efforts to better understand abused children, and contributes to their understanding healthy development. “
Original paper title: The epigenetic modification of the oxytocin gene is associated with gray matter volume and empathy of traits in the mother.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.psyneuen.2020.105026
Professor Akemi Tomoda
Dr. Akemi Tomoda is Professor at Fukui University’s Children’s Mental Development Research Center and Head of the Department of Psychosocial Nutrition Support. Her research interests include child development, pediatric neurology, neuroimaging, attachment, and child abuse. She has published over 100 articles on these topics. It is also part of numerous renowned academic organizations such as the Society for Neuroscience, the Japan Neuroscience Society, and the Asian and Oceanian Child Neurology Association.
This study was supported by a grant from the EU to “create a safe living environment in the changing public and private spheres”.
- Japan Science and Technology Society (JST) / Science and Technology Research Institute for Society (RISTEX);
- Japanese Society for the Advancement of Science KAKENHI, Scientific Research (A), (B), Challenging Exploratory Research, and JSPS Fellows [grant numbers 15H03106, 17K19898, 19K21755, 19H00617, and 20J00270];;
- The Takeda Science Foundation, Japan-US Brain Research Collaboration Program;
- AMED (Research on the prevention and intervention of child abuse through analysis of security gaps in the brain and in the epigenome of abused children, project for babies and toddlers to research health and development in adolescents and young adults [BIRTHDAY]).
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Journal: Disabled World. Language: English. Author: University of Fukui, Japan. Electronic publication date: 2020-12-09. Last revision: 2020-12-09. Reference title: “Empathy of the mother in connection with epigenetic changes in the oxytocin gene”, source: Empathy of the mother in connection with epigenetic changes in the oxytocin gene. Abstract: Research article on a study that sheds light on the connection between the oxytocin gene, brain structure, and maternal empathy. Retrieved on December 10, 2020 from https://www.disabled-world.com/news/research/methylation.php – reference category number: DW # 108-13905.
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