Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA; Department of Aging and Geriatric Research, Institute on Aging, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA; Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory, Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
The neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) has been implicated in a wide range of affiliative processes. OT exerts its functions via OT receptors, which are encoded by the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Epigenetic modification of OXTR through the process of DNA methylation has been associated with individual differences in behavioral phenotypes. Specifically, lower levels of OXTR methylation have been linked to better social and affective functioning. However, research on epigenetic mechanisms of OXTR is scarce in non-clinical populations, and even less is known about epigenetic variability across adulthood. The present study assessed methylation levels at OXTR CpG site -934 and plasma OT levels in 22 young (20-31 years, M = 23.6) and 34 older (63-80 years, M = 71.4) participants. Lower levels of OXTR methylation and higher plasma OT levels were associated with less self-reported attachment anxiety in young but not older participants, with largely independent contributions of OXTR methylation and plasma OT levels. In contrast, in the overall sample, lower levels of OXTR methylation were associated with higher self-reported attachment avoidance. Age analysis suggested that these results were largely driven by young adults. Plasma OT levels were unrelated to attachment avoidance. Taken together, these findings support the emerging notion in the literature that epigenetic properties of OXTR, in addition to endogenous OT levels, are related to adult attachment. Further, the age effects observed in the associations between OXTR methylation, plasma OT, and adult attachment emphasize the importance of adopting a developmental perspective when studying properties of the OT system and their relation to affiliative processes. Findings contribute to growing evidence suggesting that epigenetic modification of genes regulating OT pathways and endogenous OT levels are associated with the way people form and maintain intimate social relationships.