Social Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Genetic Investigation

[Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology]

Many scientists view a deficiency in the ability to recognize faces as a major component in social interaction disorders, such as those on the autism-spectrum. Previous research has shown that mammals identify members of their own species using social recognition cues; for rodents odor cues, and for primates visual cues. Previous research has also pointed to a specific receptor, the oxytocin receptor, as key for social recognition in rodents. Now, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Skuse and colleagues implicated the oxytocin receptor as critical for face recognition in humans. The authors recruited 198 Finnish and British families, who all had at least one child diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and tested each family member’s ability to: remember faces, discriminate facial emotions, and detect “direction of gaze.” Then, using a saliva sample, the authors analyzed genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor for each participant in order to understand if genetic differences in the receptor were associated with diminished social recognition ability. The authors found that high performance on the social recognition tasks was associated with normal genetic expression of the oxytocin receptor, while a specific genetic variation in the receptor, found in one-third of the participants, was associated with decreased performance. These findings implicate a specific genetic variant of the oxytocin receptor in social recognition disorders—in this case autism—as well as suggest that the gene encoding the oxytocin receptor plays an important role in human face recognition.

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