Molecular genetic studies of the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor (AVPR1a) and the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) in human behaviour: from autism to altruism with some notes in between

Prog Brain Res. 2008;170:435-49. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(08)00434-2.


Converging evidence from both human and animal studies has highlighted the pervasive role of two neuropeptides, oxytocin (OXT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP), in mammalian social behaviours. Recent molecular genetic studies of the human arginine vasopressin 1a (AVPR1a) and oxytocin (OXTR) receptors have strengthened the evidence regarding the role of these two neuropeptides in a range of normal and pathological behaviours. Significant association between both AVPR1a repeat regions and OXTR single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with risk for autism has been provisionally shown which was mediated by socialization skills in our study. AVPR1a has also been linked to eating behaviour in both clinical and non-clinical groups, perhaps reflecting the social and ritualistic side of eating behaviour. Evidence also suggests that repeat variations in AVPR1a are associated with two other social domains in Homo sapiens: music and altruism. AVPR1a was associated with dance and musical cognition which we theorize as reflecting the ancient role of this hormone in social interactions executed by vocalization, ritual movement and dyadic (mother-offspring) and group communication. Finally, we have shown that individual differences in allocation of funds in the dictator game, a laboratory game of pure altruism, is predicted by length of the AVPR1a RS3 promoter-region repeat echoing the mechanism of this hormone's action in the vole model of affiliative behaviours and facilitation of positive group interactions. While still in its infancy, the current outlook for molecular genetic investigations of AVP-OXT continues to be fascinating. Future studies should profitably focus on pharmacogenomic and genomic imaging strategies facilitated by the ease and efficacy of manipulating AVP-OXT neurotransmission by intranasal administration. Importantly, physiological measures, behavioural paradigms and brain activation can be informed by considering between-group and also within-group individual differences defined by common polymorphisms. Ultimately, investigators should strive to develop a cohesive model explaining how genomic variations are translated into individual and group differences in higher-order social behaviours.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Animals
  • Arvicolinae
  • Autistic Disorder / genetics*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Chromosome Mapping
  • Chromosomes, Human, Pair 3
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Gene Expression
  • Genetics, Behavioral*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Memory / physiology
  • Motor Activity
  • Music
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics*
  • Receptors, Vasopressin / genetics*
  • Social Behavior
  • Species Specificity
  • Speech / physiology


  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Receptors, Vasopressin