Genes contribute to biological motion perception and its covariation with autistic traits

January 22, 2018, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Illustrations of intact and spatially scrambled BM sequences, as well as the global and local BM cues conveyed by these stimuli. Credit: Jiang Yi

Humans can readily perceive and recognize the movements of a living creature, based solely on a few point-lights tracking the motion of the major joints. Such exquisite sensitivity to biological motion (BM) signals is essential to our survival and social interaction.

However, compromised visual BM processing has been observed in various genetic conditions including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a highly prevalent and heritable neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by devastating social deficits.

What are the sources underlying the individual differences in biological motion ? What accounts for its covariation with autistic traits?

To answer these questions, Dr. Jiang Yi, Dr. Wang Ying and their colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have conducted a behavioral genetic study. This study, appearing in the current issue of PNAS, has linked individual variation in two fundamental aspects of BM perception to genetic and environmental factors, respectively, and provided evidence for a common genetic basis for the heritable aspect of BM perception and autistic traits.

When encountering a visual BM stimulus, people can discern the motion pattern using two types of visual cues: the local of individual joints that conveys the kinematics (Fig. 1, Local BM cues), and the global configuration of the body that represents the skeletal structure (Fig. 1, Global BM cues).

In a series of experiments, more than 150 monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twin pairs analyzed point-light displays of BM based on local kinematics, global configuration, or BM information in general. Using the classical twin design, the heritability of the BM perception abilities could be estimated.

According to intraclass correlation and genetic modeling analyses, both genes and common environment contribute to BM perception but play different roles.

While genes can account for about 50 percent of the individual variation in the processing of local kinematics, the processing of global configuration is mainly shaped by common environmental factors.

Additional analyses revealed that participants with higher levels of autistic traits exhibited a decreased ability to process local BM with 75 percent of the covariation accounted for by genetic influences. This suggests that local BM processing shares a common genetic basis with .

This study disentangles the genetic roots of the two major components underpinning BM perception, extending the theoretical account that BM perception is supported by two distinct neural mechanisms from a genetic perspective.

It also advances our understanding of the sources of the linkage between autistic symptoms and BM perception deficits.

Explore further: Neuroscientists find greater complexity in how we perceive motion

More information: Heritable aspects of biological motion perception and its covariation with autistic traits, PNAS,

Related Stories

Neuroscientists find greater complexity in how we perceive motion

December 5, 2011
How we perceive motion is a significantly more complex process than previously thought, researchers at New York University's Center for Neural Science, Stanford University and the University of Washington have found. Their ...

Gene variation links to autistic-like traits

October 28, 2014
Researchers have confirmed an association between a genetic mutation and a higher level of autistic-like traits in individuals.

Understanding social impairments in autism

December 21, 2015
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich together with colleagues in Cologne and Zürich have used mathematical models to explain differences in social behaviour associated with autistic personality ...

People could be genetically predisposed to social media use

May 2, 2017
It's easy to think in terms of linking genetics to behavior in simple ways. Are you calm or do you have a temper? Are you creative or analytical? Are you sociable or shy? But can heritable traits actually influence a person ...

Researchers identify genetic systems disrupted in autistic brain

May 1, 2012
Autism has a strong genetic basis, but so far efforts to identify the responsible genes have had mixed results. The reason for this is that autism is influenced by many different genes, and different genes are involved in ...

Heritability of autism spectrum disorder studied in UK twins

March 4, 2015
Substantial genetic and moderate environmental influences were associated with risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and broader autism traits in a study of twins in the United Kingdom, according to an article published ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals startlingly different tissue sensitivities to cancer-driving genes

March 22, 2018
New research led by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital has unmasked hundreds of cancer-driving genes and revealed that different tissue types have shockingly variable sensitivities to those genes.

Early life experiences influence DNA in the adult brain

March 22, 2018
In the perennial question of nature versus nurture, a new study suggests an intriguing connection between the two. Salk Institute scientists report in the journal Science that the type of mothering a female mouse provides ...

Once-mysterious 'Atacama Skeleton' illuminates genetics of bone disease

March 22, 2018
The skeleton, discovered in a leather pouch behind an abandoned church, was pristine: a tiny figure, just six inches long, with a cone-shaped head, 10 pairs of ribs, and bones that looked like those of an eight-year-old child. ...

Does genome sequencing increase downstream costs?

March 22, 2018
As genome sequencing enters the clinic, fears have arisen about its potential to motivate follow-up testing and ongoing screening that could drastically increase health care spending. But few studies have quantified the downstream ...

First 'non-gene' mutations behind neurodevelopmental disorders discovered

March 21, 2018
In the largest study of its kind, genetic changes causing neurodevelopmental disorders have been discovered by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and their collaborators in the NHS Regional Genetics services. The ...

Two genes likely play key role in extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy

March 21, 2018
Most women experience some morning sickness during pregnancy, but about 2 percent of pregnant women experience a more severe form of nausea and vomiting.


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.