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Oxytocin is a neurohormone that plays a critical role in human psychological development and social behavior. Maternal oxytocin levels increase markedly after giving birth, influencing the bond a mother forms with her infant. Findings from a new epigenetic study suggest that maternal behavior also influences an infant’s developing oxytocin system.
Oxytocin action requires the presence of its receptor, the expression of which is regulated, in part, by DNA methylation. Lower levels of DNA methylation are associated with increased levels of the oxytocin receptor.
The study involved 101 infants and their mothers. The participants' interactions were observed during a free-play period when the infants were five months old and again when the infants were 18 months old. The degree of oxytocin receptor methylation was measured at both assessment periods.
The investigation revealed that the infants' DNA exhibited epigenetic changes that were correlated with the quality of the mother’s involvement in the play period. In particular, lower levels of DNA methylation were observed at the 18-month assessment if the mothers were highly involved in the play period, suggesting that maternal involvement with their infants has the capacity to enhance the activity of the developing infant’s oxytocin system. These findings were reflected in the infants' behavior, with high levels of methylation observed in temperamental, moody babies.
These findings suggest that maternal behavior may have a substantial impact on infants' developing oxytocin systems via epigenetic regulation.