Genetic variation in CD38 and breastfeeding experience interact to impact infants' attention to social eye cues

Kathleen M. Krol, Mikhail Monakhov, Poh San Lai, Richard P. Ebstein, Tobias Grossmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Attending to emotional information conveyed by the eyes is an important social skill in humans. The current study examined this skill in early development by measuring attention to eyes while viewing emotional faces in 7-mo-old infants. In particular, we investigated individual differences in infant attention to eyes in the context of genetic variation (CD38 rs3796863 polymorphism) and experiential variation (exclusive breastfeeding duration) related to the oxytocin system. Our results revealed that, whereas infants at this age show a robust fear bias (increased attention to fearful eyes), their attention to angry and happy eyes varies as a function of exclusive breastfeeding experience and genetic variation in CD38. Specifically, extended exclusive breastfeeding duration selectively enhanced looking preference to happy eyes and decreased looking to angry eyes. Importantly, however, this interaction was impacted by CD38 variation, such that only the looking preferences of infants homozygous for the C allele of rs3796863 were affected by breastfeeding experience. This genotype has been associated with reduced release of oxytocin and higher rates of autism. In contrast, infants with the CA/AA genotype showed similar looking preferences regardless of breastfeeding exposure. Thus, differences in the sensitivity to emotional eyes may be linked to an interaction between the endogenous (CD38) and exogenous (breastfeeding) availability of oxytocin. These findings underline the importance of maternal care and the oxytocin system in contributing to the early development of responding to social eye cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E5434-E5442
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number39
StatePublished - Sep 29 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Breastfeeding
  • CD38
  • Emotion perception
  • Infancy
  • Oxytocin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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