New Research on the Genetics of Empathy, and How it Relates to Autism

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that it isn’t just your environment and experiences that influence your empathy for others, your genes also play a small but important role and this connection also sheds new light on the biology of autism.

“This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy,” said Varun Warrier, a Ph.D. student at the University Cambridge who led the study.

Varun Warrier

Warrier said that while the genetic influences are important they still only play a small role in empathy. Other, non genetic factors, like upbringing, environment and other non-biological factors explain 90 percent of the individual differences in empathy between people, he said.

The study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, also confirms previous research that shows that women on average are more empathetic than men. However, this difference is not due to our DNA, which in turn implies that the sex difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors such as prenatal hormonal influences, or non-biological factors, such as socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes.

Finally, the new study found genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. In fact the paper is part of a series of papers looking at the genetics of autism by this same group of researchers at Cambridge.

For this study — led by Warrier and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, and with contributions from researchers at 23andMe, the University Paris Diderot, and Institut Pasteur — scientists used data from more than 46,000 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research and completed the online survey that measures their Empathy Quotient, or EQ. It was scientists at Cambridge who first developed the tool to measure empathy 15 years ago.

“This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we are have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved in empathy,” said Professor Thomas Bourgeron of the University of Paris. “Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings and to pinpoint the precise genes associated with individual differences in empathy.”

Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD

23andMe is uniquely equipped for a study like this, said David Hinds, Ph.D., the company’s principal scientist and a statistical geneticist who worked on this study.

“We’re encouraged by these findings, which are the latest in a series of studies we’ve collaborated on with researchers at Cambridge,” Hinds said. “Together they are are helping to reveal new insights into the genetics that influences autism.”

Empathy has two parts: “cognitive empathy,” the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings, and “affective empathy,” the ability to respond appropriately. EQ measures both parts.

Earlier studies have shown that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men. Studies have also shown that autistic people, on average, score lower on the EQ, and that this was because they struggle with cognitive empathy, even though their affective empathy may be intact.

“Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand those (like autistic people) who struggle to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings,” said Professor Baron-Cohen.