Preliminary evidence for the interaction of the oxytocin receptor gene (oxtr) and face processing in differentiating prenatal smoking patterns

Suena H. Massey, Ryne Estabrook, T. Caitlin O'Brien, Daniel S. Pine, James L. Burns, Suma Jacob, Edwin H. Cook, Lauren S. Wakschlag

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Prenatal smoking cessation has been described as an empathic action "for the baby," but this has not been empirically demonstrated. We capitalized on a genetically-characterized extant dataset with outstanding measurement of prenatal smoking patterns and maternal face processing data (as an indicator of empathy) to test this hypothesis, and explore how empathy and smoking patterns may be moderated by a genetic substrate of empathy, the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Participants were 143Caucasian women from the East Boston family study with repeated prospective reports of smoking level, adjusted based on repeated cotinine bioassays. Salivary DNA and face processing (Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy-2) were assessed 14 years later at an adolescent follow-up of offspring. Two-thirds of participants reported smoking prior to pregnancy recognition. Of these, 21% quit during pregnancy; 56% reduced smoking, and 22% smoked persistently at the same level. A significant interaction between face processing and OXTR variants previously associated with increased sensitivity to social context, rs53576GG and rs2254298A, was found ( β= -181; p=015); greater ability to identify distress in others was associated with lower levels of smoking during pregnancy for rs53576(GG)/rs2254298(A) individuals ( p=013), but not for other genotypes ( p=892). Testing this "empathy hypothesis of prenatal smoking cessation" in larger studies designed to examine this question can elucidate whether interventions to enhance empathy can improve prenatal smoking cessation rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-264
Number of pages6
JournalNeuroscience Letters
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Work was supported by grants R01 DA015223 , R01 DA023653-01A2 , and R01 DA023653-03S1 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (PI: Lauren Wakschlag) , the Walden & Jean Young Shaw Foundation (PI: Lauren Wakschlag) , and the Northwestern Memorial Foundation (PI: Suena Massey) . Funding sources had no role in the design, collection, analysis or interpretation of data, writing the manuscript, or the decision to submit results for publication. We are deeply appreciative of the expertise provided by Vanja Dukic, PhD, and Kate Pickett, PhD, and editorial assistance by Stephanie Schuette, BA.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.


  • Cognitive empathy
  • Differential susceptibility
  • Nonverbal accuracy
  • Oxytocin receptor gene
  • Pregnancy smoking
  • Social cognition


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