Amygdala responses to salient social cues vary with oxytocin receptor genotype in youth

Neuropsychologia. 2015 Dec;79(Pt A):1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.10.015. Epub 2015 Oct 23.


Depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder are linked to altered limbic morphology, dysregulated neuroendocrine function, and heightened amygdala responses to salient social cues. Oxytocin appears to be a potent modulator of amygdala reactivity and neuroendocrine responses to psychosocial stress. Given these stress regulatory effects, there is increasing interest in understanding the role of oxytocin in vulnerability to stress-related clinical disorders. The present study examines the impact of a common functional variant within the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene (rs2254298) on structure and function of the amygdala in a high-risk sample of urban, low-income, minority youth with a high incidence of early life stress (ELS). Compared to G/G homozygotes, youth carrying the OXTR A-allele showed increased amygdala volume, reduced behavioral performance, and heightened amygdala response during two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tasks that involved viewing socially-relevant face stimuli. Higher amygdala response was related to ELS in A-allele carriers but not G/G homozygotes. These findings underscore a series of relations among a common oxytocin system gene variant, ELS exposure, and structure and function of the amygdala in early life. Heightened amygdala response to salient social cues in OXTR A-allele carriers may elevate risk for emotional psychopathology by increasing amygdala involvement in disambiguating environmental cues, particularly for individuals with ELS.

Keywords: Depression; Early stress; Genetics; Limbic; Stroop.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Amygdala / blood supply
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Cues*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Genotype
  • Gray Matter / blood supply
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Minority Groups
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics*
  • Poverty
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology*


  • OXTR protein, human
  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Oxygen