14 March 2011

Better Genes, Better Brains

Better brains tend to run in families. The crucial brain determinants of life success -- IQ and Executive funtion -- are between 60% and 80% heritable. Exciting new tools for studying the genomics of the brain, such as the Allen Human Brain Map (read more here), are being used in conjunction with imaging tools such as diffusion tensor imaging, to study the individual nature of how human brains manifest underlying genomes.

A recent study from Australia looks at how genetics influences the efficiency of how human brains are wired -- and how well they work.
“Some brains are wired better than others, and 60% of the differences can be explained by genetic factors,” said lead author Alex Fornito from the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre at the University of Melbourne. “The novelty is that we now have new methods to identify different aspects of brain network organisation. Previously it was very difficult to try and map these connections.”

...“We found some of the strongest effects in the prefrontal cortex, where up to 80% of the differences between people were attributable to genes. The prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in planning, strategic thinking, decision-making and memory.”

Previous work has shown that people with more efficient brain connections score higher on tests of intelligence, and that brain network cost-efficiency is reduced in people with schizophrenia, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. _Cosmos

Finding the links between genes and intelligence, or between genes and impulse control, requires extensive research and great deal of time. At the US NIMH, the Functional Neurogenomics Program is dedicated to teasing out the numerous connections between the genome and all aspects of brain function. Likewise, in research centers around the world, scientists are hard at work discovering how differences in our genes create differences in our brains, which create differences in the worlds which each of us experiences.

This is not merely an academic problem. The endeavour holds keys to unlocking many of the most vexing problems of human societies worldwide.

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