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Whether you are a social butterfly or more of a shy homebody may – at least in part – be attributable to your genes.

A new study by researchers at the National University of Singapore reports that two specific genes play a role in young adults’ social skills and the number of close friends they have.

The study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology focused on the CD38 gene and the CD157 gene sequence – both of which regulate oxytocin, the “human social hormone.”

Oxytocin is involved with behaviors such as pair-bonding, mating and child-rearing. It is also linked with more complex emotions and traits like empathy, trust and generosity.

The NUS study included 1,300 Chinese participants living in Singapore. The researchers examined how the expression of CD38 and the sequence changes of CD517 related to the participants’ social skills.

Their social behaviors were evaluated through questionnaires that asked about participants’ ability to engage in social relationships, the quality of friendships they have and the value they place on those friendships.

The team found that a higher expression of the CD38 gene and the presence of differences in the CD157 gene sequence correlated with a participant having more close friends and better social skills.

According to study leader Richard Ebstein, professor with NUS Psychology, this study was unique because many other gene studies focus on just structural changes in gene sequences, and how that affects a particular characteristic or disease. But by studying gene expression, Ebstein and fellow researchers were able capture more information than simple structural studies.

The higher expression and changes in the genes accounted for 14 percent of the variance in social skills in the general population. Typically, less than two percent of findings in behavioral genetic association studies rely on genetic variations alone.

The researchers also noted that the results were even more profound in the male participants.

“Male participants with the higher gene expressions displayed greater sociality such as preferring activities involving other people over being alone, better communication and empathy-related skills compared to the other participants. Meanwhile, participants with lower CD38 expression reported less social skills such as difficulty in ‘reading between the lines’ or engaging less in social chitchat, and tend to have fewer friends,” said Anne Chong, PhD graduate who conducted the research with Ebstein.

“Moreover, while expressed genes can influence behaviors, our own experiences can influence the expression of genes in return. So, whether the genes are expressed to impact our behaviors or not, depend a lot on our social environments. For most people, being in healthy social environments such as having loving and supportive families, friends and colleagues would most likely lessen the effects from disadvantageous genes,” added Chong.

Another interesting find the team reported was that a variation in the CD157 gene sequence, which was found to be more common in autism cases in a previous Japanese study, was also associated with the participants’ innate interest in socializing and building relationships.

Ebstein and Chong believe these results could be useful in developing future intervention therapies or targeted treatments that would help achieve desired results for individuals with special needs. For example, they note that treatments based on new drugs that mimic of enhance the functions of the CD38 and CD157 genes could be one potential approach.

The researchers are now conducting several behavioral economics and molecular genetics studies to investigate the impact of oxytocin on human traits like creativity and openness to exposure.

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