The complexity of social cues processing

Human behavior is certainly one of the most intriguing universes to explore. Understanding why we react in certain ways rather than others, what makes us “us” is always fascinating and once you get an explanation, you can find another “why?” waiting to be explored.

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How we interact with people is a complex jigsaw puzzle and the end result of an infinite combination of “genes made me this way” and “when I was a child” related factors. This is why we decided to adopt a gene-by-environment interaction to study responses to social stressors (specifically, cries).

Our paper “Oxytocin receptor gene and parental bonding modulate prefrontal responses to cries: a NIRS Study”, recently published on Scientific Reports, was born as a substudy within a broader project investigating human social behavior. We decided to focus on specific factors, such as oxytocin receptor gene polymorphisms and perceived parental care, and to record brain activity in the prefrontal area using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in response to different types of cry.

Buccal mucosa samples need to be prepared for DNA information extraction through a sequence of solutions and reactions

Data from 102 young adults were collected, and these data revealed that greater genetic sensitiveness, combined with more positively-recalled maternal and paternal features like high levels of care and low overprotection, were correlated to increased activity in areas deputed to process reactions to social situations and decreased activation in areas related to response inhibition. 

Specifically, we found greater fluctuation of activity in brain regions involved in motivation to act and respond to the needs of social others. This implicates the extent to which information coming from social cues are processed and, eventually, translated into action. 

An example of brain activity during the experimental session, recorded in terms of oxygenated hemoglobin using a functional NIRS

Looking at the results, we found it very interesting that in the interaction with oxytocin receptor gene polymorphisms, perceptions belonging to mother and to the father contributed differently to the brain activity: recalled paternal features were correlated to areas involving language, working memory, and executive-control processes, while maternal features had greater effects over the region related to visual field perception and awareness. Taken together, they suggest that higher brain activation may correspond to a readiness to act. As a consequence, a more optimal approach to parenting requires the involvement of both parents, for more effective learning of social interaction strategies.

Reference original article

Cataldo, I., Neoh, M.J., Chew, W.F. et al. Oxytocin receptor gene and parental bonding modulate prefrontal responses to cries: a NIRS Study. Sci Rep 10, 8588 (2020).

Ilaria Cataldo, PhD

Gianluca Esposito, PhD

Go to the profile of GianlucaEsposito


Associate Professor, Nanyang Tecnological University, Singapore

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