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Smile - It's in your genes to look longer at happy faces – University of Reading

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Smile - It's in your genes to look longer at happy faces

Release Date 29 June 2011

A new study from the Universities of Reading and Cambridge has found how long we look at happy faces is influenced by our DNA. This is the first study of its type and could have profound implications for our understanding of the drive to socialize, and in turn, the atypical use of gaze in autism.

Babies look longer at happy faces and this early interest in positive emotional expressions is a potential driving force for them to socialize. This preference for happy faces is also seen in typical adults, who prefer to look longer at happy faces compared to those showing disgust.

In contrast, people with autism look less at other people's faces from an early age, and have difficulty in understanding facial expressions of emotion. One theory is that that this is because they do not find faces and other social stimuli rewarding.

New research published today in the journal Molecular Autism has found that depending on which variations of the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) gene a person carries influences the amount of time people look at happy faces. The CNR1 gene is involved in the brain's reward circuitry and expressed primarily in the regions of the brain involved in reward processing.

The new research was led by Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti from the University of Reading's and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge.

The researchers analysed the DNA from 28 adult volunteers who were tested for how long they looked at eyes and mouths of faces in video clips of facial expressions of emotion. The team found two of the four variations tested for in the CNR1 gene correlated with a longer gaze at happy (but not disgust) faces.

Dr Chakrabarti commented: "How we look at social stimuli such as faces is extremely important in determining how we engage with the social world. The current work provides some preliminary clues in unravelling the genetic architecture underlying this crucial ability."


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For all University of Cambridge media enquiries please contact Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge 01223 765542, 01223 332300 Mob: +44 (0) 7774 017464, email:

1. Author affiliations: Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 8AH, UK, (; Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AL, UK

2. Funding sources: Research grants from the Medical Research Council (UK); Target Autism Genome; the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation; NIHR CLAHRC for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, Trinity College, Cambridge

3. Article:  Chakrabarti, B, & Baron-Cohen, S (2011) Variation in the human Cannabinoid Receptor (CNR1) gene modulates gaze duration for happy faces,
Molecular Autism online

Notes for Editors

The Department of Psychology at the University of Reading is renowned for its excellence in teaching and research. In the last national Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, 95% of the research produced by academic staff in the department was recognised as of international quality, with over 60% rated as 'internationally excellent' or 'world leading'. It was also awarded the top marks for teaching with an Excellent rating in the Teaching Quality Audit. These externally validated judgements are corroborated by students' reports of satisfaction with the courses, recorded in National Student Surveys.

The University of Reading is rated as one of the top 200 universities in the world (QS World Rankings 2010).

The University of Reading is one of the UK's top research-intensive universities. The University is ranked in the top 20 UK higher education institutions in securing research council grants worth nearly £10 million from EPSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, AHRC and BBSRC. In the latest Research Assessment Exercise (2008), over 87% of the University's research was deemed to be of international standing. Areas of particular research strength recognised include meteorology and climate change, typography and graphic design, archaeology, philosophy, food biosciences, construction management, real estate and planning, as well as law.

The University of Cambridge's School of Clinical Medicine conducts internationally excellent peer reviewed basic, clinical and translational research relating to a diverse range of medical conditions and treatments. The Clinical School currently comprises over 600 academic and contract research staff including 81 Professors and Readers, 33 Senior/University Lecturers and 73 Senior Research Fellows (funded by MRC, Wellcome Trust, CRUK and other major medical charities). More than 500 NHS staff, both clinical Consultants and those in Professions allied to Medicine, make a major contribution to the teaching and research base of the Clinical School.

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