Physiological Measures and Genetic Predictors of Empathy

Chase Travis Brower, Eryberto Martinez, Micah Wolfe, Kaleb Shumway, Parker Hughes, Eric Trost


Over the past few decades, novel methods for measuring and quantifying empathy have been introduced to the scientific community. Many studies have used the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RMET) test in order to obtain an objective empathy score for participants. While this measure may be useful, other methods have recently been introduced that allow scientists to further investigate the phenomenon of empathy in an objective manner. For example, facial electromyography (EMG) has been shown to be a valid method for measuring empathy using the Corrugator supercilii (CS) and Zygomaticus major (ZM) muscles to infer negative and positive affective states, respectively1. In addition, there have been several genetic determinants identified as having a relationship with empathetic responses. Chiefly, a single-nucleotide polymorphism (rs53576) of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) has been found to be a significant predictor of empathetic behavior2. This study was designed to assess whether the presence of genetic predictors of empathetic behavior were correlated with the magnitude of EMG measures and RMET scores. DNA samples were collected for genotyping via a buccal brush and subjected to real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for analysis. Facial EMG data were also collected from each participant. These data were then compared with RMET scores for each participant. It was hypothesized that individuals with a copy of the A allele at the location of interest on OXTR would show lower RMET scores, as well as lower mean EMG activation from baseline when compared to individuals that did not express this polymorphism. Results show a significant relationship between genotype and the magnitude of EMG measures in both the positive affective condition (p = .035) and negative affective condition (p = .09). The relationship between genotype and RMET scores was not found to be significant.


Empathy; Genetics; Physiology; Healthcare; Biopac; Facial EMG; Neuroscience; Psychology

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