Eiluned Pearce, University of Oxford
Kat - Are you one of those people who’s the centre of attention in the pub or at a party? Or would you rather keep yourself to yourself? And could the difference be encoded in the genes? Eiluned Pearce, from the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at the University of Oxford, is searching for the genes involved in sociability - and as a self-confessed social animal myself - I was keen to get involved. I caught up with her at the recent British Science Festival in Bradford,and asked her to talk me through the study.
Eiluned - People have looked at specific genes and have found that there is a genetic association with particular social behaviours so things like empathy. So how easy you find it to see yourself in someone else’s shoes. What we’re doing in this study is to look at six different genes and to try and look at the interactions between them. So instead of just looking at one gene or one particular aspect of social behaviour or social thinking, we’re looking at a whole range to try and understand the complexity of social behaviour.
Kat - What sort of genes are they? What do they do?
Eiluned - So, one of them is the oxytocin receptor gene. So oxytocin is a chemical in the brain associated primarily with love, so romantic bonds, mother-infant bonds. Another one we’re looking at is testosterone which is the male hormone.
Kat - The wahay! kind of hormone.
Eiluned - Exactly and also works in the brain. We’re also looking at beta endorphin which associated with runner’s high. So, it’s basically the brain’s morphine. So it gives you a high and we think that’s associated with social bonding as well.
Kat - So, if you get more endorphin, you're kind of feeling good, and you want to hang out with people.
Eiluned - Exactly, yes.
Kat - We’re here at the British Science Association Science Festival and I have just taken part in your study.
Eiluned - You have.
Kat - The first thing I did was signed a nice consent form so that I understood the study. That’s very important.
Eiluned - Yes, exactly.
Kat - And so then they put my hands on a scanner. What was that for?
Eiluned - So, what we’re doing there is measuring the length of your second digit so your pointing finger, and your fourth digit, so your ring finger. And the ratio between those two gives an indication of the amount of testosterone you were exposed to in the womb, so before you were born. And that's linked to various behaviours in adults. So things like aggression, things like affiliation. So again, associated with social behaviour.
Kat - And then I was taken to a laptop and sat down and made to do a kind of question, lots of pictures of people’s eyes and then asking me some personal questions about my friends, my family, my support networks.
Eiluned - The eye question was trying to work out how good you are at identifying emotions in other people’s faces. That’s an ability associated with empathy so this, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand them. And then there was questions about how you feel towards romantic partners and how you feel towards your best friends. So, there, we’re trying to understand kind of pair-bond behaviours, so between two people, very intimate relationships. And there were also questions about your wider social network, so the people you go to for support, whether you talk to your neighbours and that kind of thing, and also, how you felt towards your community. So, we’re covering a huge range of social behaviours.
Kat - And then finally, I was given a plastic test tube and I basically had to fill it with spit.
Eiluned - You did! So, from the spit, we will extract your DNA to look at these particular genes. All of the data you gave us was anonymous. So, all of it was connected by a number, not associated with your name. So unfortunately, we can't tell you what your genes are or how sociable you are as an individual. All we can tell people and all we will get out of this is to understand group level differences between different versions of these genes, and whether they're associated with different versions of social behaviour.
Kat - What sort of size of study and what sort of associations are you trying to find?
Eiluned - Firstly, we wanted 600 and it’s going pretty well. The data we have is encouraging so now, we’re trying to get a thousand which is still a fairly small sample for a genetic study, but this is the first time we’ve attempted this. So, it’s a kind of pilot look at whether there are associations and maybe we’ll expand it further.
Kat - Oxford University’s Eiluned Pearce, and she’s hoping to publish her findings in a couple of years, so I’ll be checking back then.