Nav: Home

Genes influence ability to read a person's mind from their eyes

June 07, 2017

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."
-end-


Reference


Warrier, V et al. Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition. Molecular Psychiatry; 6 June 2017; DOI: 10.1038/MP.2017.122

University of Cambridge

Related Autism Articles:

Genes, ozone, and autism
Exposure to ozone in the environment puts individuals with high levels of genetic variation at an even higher risk for developing autism than would be expected just by adding the two risk factors together, a new analysis shows.
A blood test for autism
An algorithm based on levels of metabolites found in a blood sample can accurately predict whether a child is on the autism spectrum of disorder (ASD), based upon a recent study.
New form of autism found
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect around one percent of the world's population and are characterized by a range of difficulties in social interaction and communication.
Autism Speaks MSSNG study expands understanding of autism's complex genetics
A new study from Autism Speaks' MSSNG program expands understanding of autism's complex causes and may hold clues for the future development of targeted treatments.
Paths to Autism: One or Many?
A new report in Biological Psychiatry reports that brain alterations in infants at risk for autism may be widespread and affect multiple systems, in contrast to the widely held assumption of impairment specifically in social brain networks.
Raising a child with autism
Humans are resilient, even facing the toughest of life's challenges.
Explaining autism
Recognizing a need to better understand the biology that produces Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms, scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Singapore, have teamed up and identified a novel mechanism that potentially links abnormal brain development to the cause of ASDs.
Autism breakthrough
Using a visual test that is known to prompt different reactions in autistic and normal brains, Harvard researchers have shown that those differences were associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway used by GABA, one of the brain's chief inhibitory neurotransmitters.
New options for treating autism
The release of oxytocin leads to an increase in the production of anandamide, which causes mice to display a preference for interacting socially.
The Autism Science Foundation launches the Autism Sisters Project
The Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding autism research, today announced the launch of the Autism Sisters Project, a new initiative that will give unaffected sisters of individuals with autism the opportunity to take an active role in accelerating research into the 'Female Protective Effect.'

Related Autism Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...