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Open Access Opinion

Does the oxytocin receptor polymorphism (rs2254298) confer 'vulnerability' for psychopathology or 'differential susceptibility'? insights from evolution

Martin Brüne

Author Affiliations

Research Department of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry and Psychiatric Preventive Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Preventive Medicine, University of Bochum, LWL University Hospital, Alexandrinenstrasse 1, D-44791 Bochum, Germany

BMC Medicine 2012, 10:38  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-38

Published: 17 April 2012


The diathesis-stress model of psychiatric conditions has recently been challenged by the view that it might be more accurate to speak of 'differential susceptibility' or 'plasticity' genes, rather than one-sidedly focusing on individual vulnerability. That is, the same allelic variation that predisposes to a psychiatric disorder if associated with (developmentally early) environmental adversity may lead to a better-than-average functional outcome in the same domain under thriving (or favourable) environmental conditions. Studies of polymorphic variations of the serotonin transporter gene, the monoamino-oxidase-inhibitor A coding gene or the dopamine D4 receptor gene indicate that the early environment plays a crucial role in the development of favourable versus unfavourable outcomes. Current evidence is limited, however, to establishing a link between genetic variation and behavioural phenotypes. In contrast, little is known about how plasticity may be expressed at the neuroanatomical level as a 'hard-wired' correlate of observable behaviour. The present review article seeks to further strengthen the argument in favour of the differential susceptibility theory by incorporating findings from behavioural and neuroanatomical studies in relation to genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor gene. It is suggested that polymorphic variation at the oxytocin receptor gene (rs2254298) is associated with sociability, amygdala volume and differential risk for psychiatric conditions including autism, depression and anxiety disorder, depending on the quality of early environmental experiences. Seeing genetic variation at the core of developmental plasticity can explain, in contrast to the diathesis-stress perspective, why evolution by natural selection has maintained such 'risk' alleles in the gene pool of a population.

Please see related manuscript: webcite