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Oxytocin receptor expression patterns in the human brain across development

Abstract

Oxytocin plays a vital role in social behavior and homeostatic processes, with animal models indicating that oxytocin receptor (OXTR) expression patterns in the brain influence behavior and physiology. However, the developmental trajectory of OXTR gene expression is unclear. By analyzing gene expression data in human post-mortem brain samples, from the prenatal period to late adulthood, we demonstrate distinct patterns of OXTR gene expression in the developing brain, with increasing OXTR expression along the course of the prenatal period culminating in a peak during early childhood. This early life OXTR expression peak pattern appears slightly earlier in a comparative macaque sample, which is consistent with the relative immaturity of the human brain during early life compared to macaques. We also show that a network of genes with strong spatiotemporal couplings with OXTR is enriched in several psychiatric illness and body composition phenotypes. Taken together, these results demonstrate that oxytocin signaling plays an important role in a diverse set of psychological and somatic processes across the lifespan.

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Fig. 1: OXTR gene expression in sixteen regions of the human brain across different developmental phases.
Fig. 2: OXTR spatiotemporal co-expression and the evolution of OXTR co-expression modules.
Fig. 3: Networks of genes with strong spatiotemporal couplings with OXTR are enriched in brain and lung tissue, body composition phenotypes, and psychiatric illnesses.
Fig. 4: Differential stability for OXTR, CD38, and OXT across development.

Code availability

The R code to recreate our analyses and figures, along links to the public data used in our analyses, are available at https://gitlab.com/jarek.rokicki/spatio-temporal-oxytocin/.

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Funding

This research was funded by the Research Council of Norway (301767), the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF16OC0019856), the Kavli Trust, and the ERA-Net Cofund through the ERA PerMed project “IMPLEMENT”.

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JR, LTW, and DSQ conceived the study. JR analyzed the data, with contributions from DSQ and AMS. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results. JR and DSQ wrote the first draft of the paper and all authors contributed to the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Daniel S. Quintana.

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Rokicki, J., Kaufmann, T., de Lange, AM.G. et al. Oxytocin receptor expression patterns in the human brain across development. Neuropsychopharmacol. 47, 1550–1560 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-022-01305-5

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