"Long before it's in the papers"
December 21, 2015


“Networks” of intelligence-linked genes reported found

Dec. 21, 2015
Courtesy of Imperial College London
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists say they have iden­ti­fied for the first time en­tire “net­works” of in­tel­li­gence-linked genes, by un­cov­er­ing two clus­ters of genes linked to hu­man in­tel­li­gence.

Called M1 and M3, the re­search­ers said, these so-called gene net­works ap­pear to in­flu­ence cog­ni­tive func­tion—which in­cludes mem­o­ry, at­ten­tion, pro­cess­ing speed and rea­son­ing.

These two net­works, which each con­tain hun­dreds of genes, are likely to be un­der the con­trol of mas­ter reg­u­la­tor switches, they added. The re­search­ers are keen to iden­ti­fy these and ex­plore wheth­er it might be fea­si­ble to ma­ni­pu­late them. The re­search is at a very early stage, but the sci­en­tists ul­ti­mately want to see wheth­er some­one could use this knowl­edge of gene net­works to boost cog­ni­tive func­tion.

“We know that ge­net­ics plays a ma­jor role in in­tel­li­gence but un­til now haven’t known which genes are rel­e­vant. This re­search high­lights some of genes in­volved in hu­man in­tel­li­gence, and how they in­ter­act with each oth­er,” said Mi­chael John­son of Im­pe­ri­al Col­lege Lon­don, lead au­thor a re­port on the find­ings.

“What’s ex­cit­ing about this 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. Our re­search sug­gests that it might be pos­si­ble to work with these genes to mod­i­fy in­tel­li­gence, but that is only a the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity” for now.

In the stu­dy, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Neu­ro­sci­ence, re­search­ers looked at sam­ples of hu­man brain from pa­tients who had un­der­gone brain sur­gery for ep­i­lep­sy. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors an­a­lyzed thou­sands of genes ex­pressed, or ac­tivated, in the hu­man brain. Next they com­bined these re­sults with ge­net­ic in­forma­t­ion from healthy peo­ple who had un­der­gone IQ tests and from peo­ple with neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal dis­or­ders such as au­tism spec­trum dis­or­der and in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­ity.

They con­ducted var­i­ous com­puta­t­ional anal­y­ses and com­par­isons in or­der to iden­ti­fy the gene net­works in­flu­enc­ing healthy hu­man cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. They found that some of the same genes that in­flu­ence hu­man in­tel­li­gence in healthy peo­ple were al­so the same genes that cause im­paired cog­ni­tive abil­ity and ep­i­lep­sy when mu­tat­ed.

“Traits such 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.

“This study shows how we can use large ge­no­mic datasets to un­cov­er new path­ways for hu­man brain func­tion in both health and dis­ease. Even­tu­al­ly, we hope that this sort of anal­y­sis will pro­vide new in­sights in­to bet­ter treat­ments for neu­rode­vel­op­ment­al dis­eases such as ep­i­lep­sy, and amel­io­rate or treat the cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments as­so­ci­at­ed with these dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases.”

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Scientists say they have identified for the first time entire “networks” of intelligence-linked genes, by recognizing two clusters of genes linked to human intelligence. Called M1 and M3, the researchers said, these so-called gene networks appear to influence cognitive function—which includes memory, attention, processing speed and reasoning. These two networks, which each contain hundreds of genes, are likely to be under the control of master regulator switches, they added. The researchers are keen to identify these and explore whether it might be feasible to manipulate them. The research is at a very early stage, but the scientists would ultimately like to investigate whether it is possible to use this knowledge of gene networks to boost cognitive function. “We know that genetics plays a major role in intelligence but until now haven’t known which genes are relevant. This research highlights some of genes involved in human intelligence, and how they interact with each other,” said Michael Johnson of Imperial College London, lead author a report on the findings. “What’s exciting about this 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. 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.” In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers looked at samples of human brain from patients who had undergone brain surgery for epilepsy. The investigators analyzed thousands of genes expressed, or activated, in the human brain. Next they combined these results with genetic information from healthy people who had undergone IQ tests and from people with neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. They conducted various computational analyses and comparisons in order to identify the gene networks influencing healthy human cognitive abilities. They found that some of the same genes that influence human intelligence in healthy people were also the same genes that cause impaired cognitive ability and epilepsy when mutated. “Traits such 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. “This study shows how we can use large genomic datasets to uncover new pathways for human brain function in both health and disease. Eventually, we hope that this sort of analysis will provide new insights into better treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases such as epilepsy, and ameliorate or treat the cognitive impairments associated with these devastating diseases.”