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

June 7, 2017, University of Cambridge
Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes
Credit: Dboybaker

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 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."

Explore further: Men and women with autism have 'extreme male' scores on the 'eyes test' of mindreading

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

Related Stories

Men and women with autism have 'extreme male' scores on the 'eyes test' of mindreading

September 7, 2015
Scientists at the University of Cambridge University have published new results in the journal PLoS ONE from the largest ever study of people with autism taking the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test. Whilst typical adults ...

Study confirms a gene linked to Asperger Syndrome and empathy

December 17, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Scientists have confirmed that variations in a particular gene play a key role in the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger Syndrome. They have also found that variations in the same gene are also ...

The genetic architecture of risk for autism spectrum disorder

May 16, 2017
A new study of inherited genetic risk indicates that common genetic variations throughout the genome act in addition to rare, deleterious mutations in autism-associated genes to create risk for autism.

Does your empathy predict if you would stop and help an injured person?

November 1, 2016
If you see an injured person by the side of the road, would you stop and help them, or are you more likely to walk on by? What motivates people to do good in such a situation?

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study identifies 44 genetic risk factors for major depression

April 26, 2018
A global research project has mapped out the genetic basis of major depression, identifying 44 genetic variants which are risk factors for depression, 30 of which are newly discovered. The study, by the Psychiatric Genomics ...

Key differences in young, older people's immune cells attributed to environment

April 26, 2018
Discoveries by Stanford University School of Medicine investigators may help explain why older people's immune systems often don't work so well, why different people's immune systems age at different rates, and why the environment ...

New testing provides better information for parents of children with form of epilepsy

April 26, 2018
Advances in genetic testing offer new insights to parents who have a child with a rare but serious form of epilepsy, epileptic encephalopathy (EE), found in one of about every 2,000 births and characterized by developmental ...

Natural barcodes enable better cell tracking

April 24, 2018
Each of us carries in our genomes about 10 million genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which represent a difference of just one letter in the genetic code. Every human's pattern of SNPs is unique ...

The role of 'extra' DNA in cancer evolution and therapy resistance

April 23, 2018
Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. Response to standard-of-care treatment is poor, with a two-year survival rate of only 15 percent. Research is beginning to provide a better understanding ...

Variants in non-coding DNA contribute to inherited autism risk

April 19, 2018
In recent years, researchers have firmly established that gene mutations appearing for the first time, called de novo mutations, contribute to approximately one-third of cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a new study, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.