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Thu August 11, 2011
Dr. Bhismadev Chakrabarti, University of Reading - The Genetics of Making Eye Contact
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Bhismadev Chakrabarti of the University of Reading explains research that is uncovering how our social interactions are influenced by our genes.
Bhismadev Chakrabarti is an assistant professor of neuroscience in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading and a senior researcher at the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge. His current research is focused on the role of the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) gene in Autism Spectrum Conditions.
Dr. Bhismadev Chakrabarti - The Genetics of Making Eye Contact
Though we all depend on reading people's faces, each of us sees others' faces a bit differently. Some of us may gaze deeply into another's eyes, while others seem more reserved. At one end of this spectrum are people with autism spectrum conditions, who look less at other people's faces, and have trouble understanding others people's feelings. In our recent research published in the journal Molecular Autism, we found that there were genetic differences in how long people looked at happy faces. In particular, we looked at variation within one gene, the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) gene, and found that depending on which variation a person was carrying, he or she would be looking at a happy face for longer or shorter amount of time.
Of course, the first question is, why this particular gene. The CNR1 gene is involved in the brain's reward circuitry. As happy faces are signals of social reward, we expected that variation in this gene might underlie how long people looked at happy faces.
In previous research using functional MRI, we found that these variations in the CNR1 gene were associated with different levels of activity in the brain regions involved in reward processing, in response to happy faces. In the current study we analysed the DNA from a new sample of volunteers who were tested (using a "gaze tracker") for how long they looked at video clips of facial expressions of emotion. We found that certain CNR1 variations were associated with a longer gaze at happy, but not disgust faces.
We find this particularly interesting, as this is the first study to show that how much we gaze at faces is influenced by our genetic make-up. If replicated it has profound implications for our understanding of the drive to socialize, and in turn, the atypical use of gaze in autism.