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Genetics and Sociality

Researchers show in the journal “PNAS” how friends can relieve stress

Social support from family and friends is one of the most powerful protective factors against stress-related diseases - from heart attacks to depression. Prof. Markus Heinrichs, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Freiburg, demonstrated in 2003 for the first time in humans that the neurohormone oxytocin plays a central role in both the control of stress and the stress-reducing effect of social support. He has also shown in a series of studies that oxytocin administered as a nasal spray increases trust and empathy for others and therefore has therapeutic potential for a range of mental disorders.

But could the oxytocin system also help explain why support from close friends and family has very different effects on individuals?

In the current issue of the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Freiburg psychologists and neuroscientists Prof. Markus Heinrichs, Dr. Frances S. Chen, Dr. Robert Kumsta, and Dr. Bernadette von Dawans, together with the researchers Prof. Richard P. Ebstein and Dr. Mikhail Monakhov of the National University of Singapore, examined for the first time genetic modulation of social support’s effectiveness during stress through variants of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). The hormonal and subjective stress responses of 200 adults to a standardized social stress test were studied; half of the sample was asked to bring a close friend for support. “The presence of a friend during preparation for the test reduced stress in most people; interestingly, however, the group of people carrying a particular variant of the oxytocin receptor gene did not benefit from the support" said Frances S. Chen. For Markus Heinrichs, these results have far-reaching consequences for current research on new therapeutic approaches: "The ‘psychobiological therapy' we are currently developing involves a completely new combination of oxytocin and psychotherapy for mental disorders involving social deficits – here, it is of great relevance to understand how ‘sensitive’ this system is in different patients.”

Original Publication:
Chen, F.S.*, Kumsta, R.*, von Dawans, B., Monakhov, M., Ebstein, R.P. & Heinrichs, M. (2011). Common oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphism and social support interact to reduce stress in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), in press. (* shared first authorship)

Prof. Dr. Markus Heinrichs
Department of Psychology
University of Freiburg
Phone: 0049-761-203-3029
Fax: 0049-761-203-3023

Prof. Dr. Markus Heinrichs | University of Freiburg
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