Major international study links genes to brain structural changes over time

There seem to be genes that influence how our brains develop over time. A large international consortium has discovered this with an extensive study. The results of the study were recently published in Nature Neuroscience.

“If we know how a healthy brain develops, and which factors contribute to abnormal development, we may be able to recognize and predict abnormal brain development at an early stage, and eventually even prevent it.”

Are there genes that influence how our brain develops over time? A large international consortium set up an extensive study to answer this specific question. Moji Aghajani – Assistant Professor at the Institute of Educational & Child Studies – contributed to this study and says the following about the study results: “Using complex analyses in which brain structural changes over time – from infancy to late adulthood – were linked to genetic variances, we indeed saw that certain genes appear to affect the growth or shrinkage of brain regions.” The results of the study were recently published in Nature Neuroscience.

For this study, more than 200 researchers from the ENIGMA Consortium collected two MRI scans and genetic data from no fewer than 15,640 people across the globe. The researchers studied how 15 key brain structures (see figure) evolved over time, and whether there were genes that could be linked to these changes.

Figure: How 15 key brain structures evolved over time

Their meta-analyses identified several genes associated with brain structural changes over time. Three of these clearly stood out. Moji Aghajani indicates that these 3 genes have previously been linked to metabolic processes, cognitive functioning, psychiatric symptoms, and neurodegenerative processes. So, it seems that the genes related to neurostructural change apparently also influence our functioning.

The principal investigators of this study – Hilleke Hulshoff Pol and Rachel Brouwer, Utrecht University – say the following about possible implications of this study: “Our brains change continuously, even when we are adults. For example, certain brain areas become smaller or larger over time. These changes can influence how we function, how we develop and age, and possibly also the development of brain diseases. That makes them interesting to study, especially in combination with the study of our genes. If we know how a healthy brain develops, and which factors contribute to abnormal development, we may be able to recognize and predict abnormal brain development at an early stage, and eventually even prevent it.”

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