Genes Influence Ability to Read a Person’s Mind From Their Eyes

Summary: Researchers report our genetic makeup influences our ability to read a person’s emotions or thoughts through their eyes.

Source: University of Cambridge.

Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy’ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes”.

The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.”

Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”

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Source: Craig Brierley – University of Cambridge
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the University of Cambridge news release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition” by V Warrier, K L Grasby, F Uzefovsky, R Toro, P Smith, B Chakrabarti, J Khadake, E Mawbey-Adamson, N Litterman, J-J Hottenga, G Lubke, D I Boomsma, N G Martin, P K Hatemi, S E Medland, D A Hinds, T Bourgeron & S Baron-Cohen in Molecular Psychiatry. Published online June 6 2017 doi:10.1038/mp.2017.122

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Abstract

Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition

We conducted a genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy using the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (Eyes Test) in 88,056 research volunteers of European Ancestry (44,574 females and 43,482 males) from 23andMe Inc., and an additional 1497 research volunteers of European Ancestry (891 females and 606 males) from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study. We confirmed a female advantage on the Eyes Test (Cohen’s d=0.21, P<2.2 × 10−16), and identified a locus in 3p26.1 that is associated with scores on the Eyes Test in females (rs7641347, Pmeta=1.58 × 10−8). Common single nucleotide polymorphisms explained 5.8% (95% CI: 4.5%–7.2%; P=1.00 × 10−17) of the total trait variance in both sexes, and we identified a twin heritability of 28% (95% CI: 13%–42%). Finally, we identified significant genetic correlation between the Eyes Test and anorexia nervosa, openness (NEO-Five Factor Inventory), and different measures of educational attainment and cognitive aptitude.”Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition” by V Warrier, K L Grasby, F Uzefovsky, R Toro, P Smith, B Chakrabarti, J Khadake, E Mawbey-Adamson, N Litterman, J-J Hottenga, G Lubke, D I Boomsma, N G Martin, P K Hatemi, S E Medland, D A Hinds, T Bourgeron & S Baron-Cohen in Molecular Psychiatry. Published online June 6 2017 doi:10.1038/mp.2017.122

Addiction, risk takers brain scan

scan risk taker

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Francesca Filbey, found that risk-taking teens have hyperconnectivity between the amygdala and areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with critical thinking skills and emotion regulation. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions. The nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex also showed increased activity, with the former often a point of study in addiction research.

What this all shows is that there’s a correlation between risk-takers and those whose minds are pre-conditioned to addiction.

Self-control systems: a common culprit

Another study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and elsewhere, found a link between risk-takers and their brains’ self-control systems. They used specialized software that examined brain regions prior to, and during, both a risky choice and a safe choice, in addition to a video game called Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), where participants can show their risk-taking tendencies by choosing to take a risk (by inflating a balloon further and earning money) or playing it safe (stop inflating the balloon and cashing out).

The balloon game is essentially a microcosm of other riskier choices, such as choosing to drink too much before driving home. With each additional drink consumed or additional air put into the balloon, there’s an increased risk of something unpleasant and potentially harmful occurring. The researchers used this concept to help study areas of the brain that are impacted when participants are confronted with a decision that involves risk.

Correlation between the brain and risk-taking

Identifying the link between risk-taking and one’s brain could open several possibilities that have the potential to improve our lives. “Our findings are crucial in that they help identify potential brain biomarkers that, when taken into context with behavioral differences, may help identify which adolescents are at risk for dangerous and pathological behaviors in the future,” says DeWitt.

Similarly, the study that utilized the Balloon Analogue Risk Task accommodates the analysis of risk-taking in a controlled environment with little variability, which suggests that studying the correlation between the brain and risk-taking will become even more useful for scientists as additional research methods, like BART, emerge.

With friends or group

It is well known that teenagers take risks — and that when they do, they like to have company. Teens are five times more likely to be in a car accident when in a group than when driving alone, and they are more likely to commit a crime in a group.

References

DeWitt SJ, Aslan S, & Filbey FM (2014). Adolescent risk-taking and resting state functional connectivity. Psychiatry research, 222 (3), 157-64 PMID: 24796655

Helfinstein SM, Schonberg T, Congdon E, Karlsgodt KH, Mumford JA, Sabb FW, Cannon TD, London ED, Bilder RM, & Poldrack RA (2014). Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (7), 2470-5 PMID: 24550270

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