Never forget a face? Scientists unlock genetics that cause autism sufferers’ memory struggles

People with the gene variant are less able to recognise faces

One in three people have inherited a genetic variation that impairs their ability to remember faces, according to a study that could explain why some individuals recall everyone they have ever met while others have difficulty recognising their own relatives.

The study was carried out on nearly 200 families with an autistic child as part of research into genetic influences on the childhood disorder, which is linked with an inability to recognise faces as part of normal development.

However, the scientists believe that the findings have a wider significance by explaining – at least to some extent – the wide variation in the ability of the general population to recognise faces, whether of total strangers they have seen just once, or of close friends and relatives.

The scientists studied the gene for the protein receptor responsible for triggering the reaction in the brain to oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that helps to form social bonds, especially between close friends and lovers, as well as between mothers and their new-born babies.

When they analysed the genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor gene in 198 families with an autistic child they found a small change in the gene’s DNA sequence had a large and significant impact on the memory skills for faces within the families.

The particular variation in the gene is common in the general population, with about a third of people inheriting both copies of the deficient gene variant from each of their parents. The scientists said that high prevalence of the gene variant could explain why a relatively large proportion of people have difficulty with remembering faces.

“Some people seem to remember the faces of almost everyone they have met, yet others struggle to recognise even close friends and family,” said Professor David Scuse of the Institute of Child Health at University College London, the lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy  of Sciences.

“We have found a possible explanation. A gene related to oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, influences face memory and, surprisingly, about one in three people has a version of the gene that doesn’t work so well,” Professor Scuse said.

Oxytocin is released into the bloodstream during and after childbirth, as well as during lactation, and is believed to stimulate bond-forming between a woman and her baby. It is also released during love making and orgasm, helping to form pair bonds.

However, oxytocin is also released in the brain of both sexes as a “neuromodulator” and it is this aspect of the hormone’s function that is believed to be involved with face recognition, which is the primary way that humans identify individuals.

Autistic children find it difficult to form social bonds and do not learn to recognise faces in the normal way. Their close relatives also tend to have a higher-than-average risk of displaying milder versions of these kinds of autistic traits, Professor Scuse said.

“Our central conclusion is that it seems like a variation in a single gene is associated with strikingly different abilities in the population we studied to remember faces, and it could account for a significant proportion of the variation we see in the general population to recognise faces,” he said.

“It’s very unusual for a single gene to have an influence on such a complex trait as facial recognition. People with the gene variant are less able to recognise faces and it’s a bit like inheriting the kind of genes that make you two inches shorter than the average height,” Professor Scuse explained.

ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform