Study finds evidence that genes influence empathy

New research has found empathy may have a genetic component that also influences personality, cognition, and psychiatric conditions. Further, although not a novel finding, researchers noted women generally performed better on a test used to gauge empathy than their male counterparts. The findings are highlighted in a new study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur, and 23andMe.

Published yesterday in Molecular Psychiatry, the first-of-its kind study found evidence that genes influence our ability to read and understand emotions in others. The team at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge analysed data from 89,000 individuals worldwide, the majority of whom were 23andMe customers, who consented to the research.

Participants completed a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”, in which they were shown photos of the area around the eyes and asked to identify one of two possible emotions. This assessed Theory of Mind and the ability to recognise and appreciate another person’s mental state. Researchers identified that women with certain genetic variants on chromosome 3 performed better, with higher levels of empathy. Interestingly, male performance on the test was not associated with a genetic variant. Overall, women consistently performed better than men, exhibiting higher levels of empathy.

The genetic variant associated with empathy in women is near the gene LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) on chromosome 3, which is highly active in an area of the human brain called the striatum. Brain scans have indicated that this section of the brain may play a role in cognition empathy.

This is the first study that correlates measures of empathy with variation in the human genome. Previous research that has attempted to assess the genetic associations of personality and psychological traits has sometimes been unreliable, due to their small sample size. 23andMe’s large data offering enables scientists to gain insight into the biology behind traits such as empathy and psychological conditions like schizophrenia.

Dr. David Hinds, Principal Scientist, Statistical Genetics at 23andMe, says:

Finding genetic influences for these kinds of traits and conditions was just not possible in the past because the studies were simply too small. Now that we have large cohorts of research participants — in the tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands — studies are yielding never seen before results. All thanks to research participation on a massive scale.

One of the lead authors, 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.

23andMe is committed to furthering such research and approximately 85 percent of customers consent to allowing their de-identified data to be made available for study in aggregate. By allowing scientists access to its unique and powerful research resource engine, 23andMe helps open up genetics to qualified researchers, providing novel insights into individuals’ traits, genetic diseases and a variety of other conditions.

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