Variations in the human cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) gene modulate striatal responses to happy faces.
Happy facial expressions are innate social rewards and evoke a response in the striatum, a region known for its role in reward processing in rats, primates and humans. The cannabinoid receptor 1 (CNR1) is the best-characterized molecule of the endocannabinoid system, involved in processing rewards. We hypothesized that genetic variation in human CNR1 gene would predict differences in the striatal response to happy faces. In a 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning study on 19 Caucasian volunteers, we report that four single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the CNR1 locus modulate differential striatal response to happy but not to disgust faces. This suggests a role for the variations of the CNR1 gene in underlying social reward responsivity. Future studies should aim to replicate this finding with a balanced design in a larger sample, but these preliminary results suggest neural responsivity to emotional and socially rewarding stimuli varies as a function of CNR1 genotype. This has implications for medical conditions involving hypo-responsivity to emotional and social stimuli, such as autism.