Under the Hood

Intelligence Networks: Researchers May Have Found Genes Responsible For Cognitive Function

Neurons
Researchers have identified two genes linked to cognitive function. NICHD CC BY 2.0

Though we have known for some time that some intelligence is genetic, it wasn’t until recently that we discovered which genes are actually linked to our smarts.

In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the Imperial College London describe the discovery of two gene clusters, M1 and M3, which may influence our cognition — “human mental abilities, such as memory, attention, processing speed, reasoning, and executive function,” according to the researchers. M1 and M3 contain hundreds of genes, and the researchers believe they are all controlled by master switches. Though the research is in its infancy, the authors’ ultimate desire is to find these switches and try to control them.

"What’s exciting about this [research] is that the genes we have found are likely to share a common regulation, which means that potentially, we can manipulate a whole set of genes whose activity is linked to human intelligence,” lead author Dr. Michael Johnson, of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, said in a press release. “Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence, but that is only a theoretical possibility at the moment — we have just taken a first step along that road.”

To find these so-called “intelligence networks,” the research team looked at 122 hippocampi samples from patients who had recently undergone neurosurgery for temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition in which recurrent, unprovoked seizures originating from the temporal lobe occur. They grouped similar genes found across each sample into modules (M1 to M24), with each module featuring anywhere from 29 to 1,148 genes. They then compared these samples to those of cognitively healthy individuals who had no history of psychiatric or neurological disease.

In doing so, the researchers were able to identify which genes influenced cognitive ability. They found the genes that give intelligence to healthy individuals are the same genes that, once mutated, impair cognitive ability and cause epilepsy.

“Traits such as intelligence are governed by large groups of genes working together — like a football team made up of players in different positions,” Johnson said. “We used computer analysis to identify the genes in the human brain that work together to influence our cognitive ability to make new memories or sensible decisions when faced with lots of complex information. We found that some of these genes overlap with those that cause severe childhood onset epilepsy or intellectual disability.”

The good news: We now know which genes in our brains are responsible for cognitive function, and that, once they’re mutated, they can cause cognitive dysfunction. With more research, these results may one day contribute to the development of new therapies that will help more than 16 million people living in the U.S. with cognitive impairment.

Source: Johnson M, et al. Systems genetics identifies a convergent gene network for cognition and neurodevelopmental disease. Nature Neuroscience. 2015.

Loading...