A research project that brought together 300 scientists from 33 countries has announced, in Nature, that its collaborators identified eight genes that govern the size of parts of the human brain—including areas that help us learn, play, move and remember.
“We were able to identify hot points in the genome that help build the brain,” Paul Thompson, a University of Southern California neuroscientist involved in the study told Science.
Those “hot points” are eight genetic mutations that, as Science reports, "can shrink brain tissue by about 1.5%, depending on the letter inherited"—or, as USC puts it, can "age the brain an average of three years." Several of these variants are quite common, affecting over one-fifth of the world’s population. Certain cognitive abilities are thought to be linked to the size of some parts of the brain affected by these mutations.
“Any change in those genes appears to alter your mental bank account or brain reserve by 2 or 3 percent,” Thompson explained.
The research consortium is called ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) and received funding from the National Institute of Health’s Big Data to Knowledge initiative, which is meant to improve the access to biomedical data. So far, ENIGMA has collected MRI scans and genetic information from 30,717 people. The combined effort has allowed researchers to zero in on subtle differences between brains and genes that wouldn’t have been possible to identify in smaller studies.
So what does all of this mean for the future of neuroscience? Besides basic insight into the ways genetics can shape the brain, the information taken from the ENIGMA consortium may also help develop treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and autism—if further research finds a link between such disorders and the size of certain parts of the brain.