The Genetics of Empathy

In a first-of-its kind study looking at empathy, researchers have found strong evidence that the ability to read and understand emotions in others simply by looking into their eyes is influenced by our genes.

Published in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry, the study was led by a team of scientists at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, who combined genetic data from 23andMe with results from a cognitive empathy test developed by the university almost two decades ago called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes.”

 

The researchers found evidence that this important human ability to read, understand and respond to emotions in others — vital for social interactions — is indeed influenced by genetics, and that women were much more adept at discerning emotions than men. The researchers even found a specific genetic variant that influenced that ability in women, an association not found in the opposite sex. In addition, the study found that higher empathy scores were also associated with higher risk for anorexia, more years in school, and openness to new experiences.

The research adds to ongoing studies on the connections between empathy and autism, specifically the ability to infer emotions in others or “cognitive empathy.”

“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,” said Warrier.

All of this will help point researchers toward a better understanding of the biological underpinnings for empathy, as well as the phenotypes associated with higher empathy scores. For this study, the researchers used data from more than 89,000 23andMe customers who consented to research.  A smaller cohort of about 1,500 people from the The Queensland Institute of Medical Research’s (QIMR), Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study was also used for this research.

The genetic variant associated with empathy in women is near the gene LRRN1 on chromosome 3, which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum. Brain scans indicate that this portion of the brain may play a role in cognition empathy, but more study is needed to understand this potential connection.

Warrier worked on this study with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University. Also working on this research was Professor Thomas Bourgeron, at the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

“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,” said Professor Baron-Cohen.

While the study offers important insight into genetic influences on empathy, there are other important influences that go beyond biology.

“We should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience,” said Professor Bourgeron.