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Scientists identify gene linking brain structure to intelligence

11.02.2014
For the first time, scientists at King's College London have identified a gene linking the thickness of the grey matter in the brain to intelligence.

The study is published today in Molecular Psychiatry and may help scientists understand biological mechanisms behind some forms of intellectual impairment.

The researchers looked at the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain. It is known as 'grey matter' and plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. Previous studies have shown that the thickness of the cerebral cortex, or 'cortical thickness', closely correlates with intellectual ability, however no genes had yet been identified.

An international team of scientists, led by King's, analysed DNA samples and MRI scans from 1,583 healthy 14 year old teenagers, part of the IMAGEN cohort. The teenagers also underwent a series of tests to determine their verbal and non-verbal intelligence.

Dr Sylvane Desrivières, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry and lead author of the study, said: "We wanted to find out how structural differences in the brain relate to differences in intellectual ability. The genetic variation we identified is linked to synaptic plasticity – how neurons communicate. This may help us understand what happens at a neuronal level in certain forms of intellectual impairments, where the ability of the neurons to communicate effectively is somehow compromised."

She adds: "It's important to point out that intelligence is influenced by many genetic and environmental factors. The gene we identified only explains a tiny proportion of the differences in intellectual ability, so it's by no means a 'gene for intelligence'."

The researchers looked at over 54,000 genetic variants possibly involved in brain development. They found that, on average, teenagers carrying a particular gene variant had a thinner cortex in the left cerebral hemisphere, particularly in the frontal and temporal lobes, and performed less well on tests for intellectual ability. The genetic variation affects the expression of the NPTN gene, which encodes a protein acting at neuronal synapses and therefore affects how brain cells communicate.

To confirm their findings, the researchers studied the NPTN gene in mouse and human brain cells. The researchers found that the NPTN gene had a different activity in the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which may cause the left hemisphere to be more sensitive to the effects of NPTN mutations. Their findings suggest that some differences in intellectual abilities can result from the decreased function of the NPTN gene in particular regions of the left brain hemisphere.

The genetic variation identified in this study only accounts for an estimated 0.5% of the total variation in intelligence. However, the findings may have important implications for the understanding of biological mechanisms underlying several psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, where impaired cognitive ability is a key feature of the disorder.

For a copy of the paper or interview with the author, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk / (+44) 0207 848 5377 / (+44) 07718 697 176

Paper reference: Desrivières, S. et al. 'Single nucleotide polymorphism in the neuroplastin locus associates with cortical thickness and intellectual ability in adolescents' published in Molecular Psychiatry

Funding: The research is supported by the European Union funded IMAGEN project, the German Ministry of Education and Research, the Innovative Medicine Initiative Project EU-AIMS, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Swedish Research Council (FORMAS), and the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC) for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London.

About IMAGEN: http://www.imagen-europe.com/index.php

IMAGEN is a major European-Commission funded project on risk taking and reinforcement-related behaviours in teenagers. The project involves 2,000 14 year old children and research teams from England, France, Ireland and Germany. The project aims to identify and learn more about biological and environmental factors that might have an influence on normal brain function and mental health in teenagers. This knowledge will then help develop better prevention strategies and therapies in the future.

About King's College London: http://www.kcl.ac.uk

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013/14 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times 'Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13'. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 25,000 students (of whom more than 10,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and more than 6,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £554 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The College is in the midst of a five-year, £500 million fundraising campaign – World questions|King's answers – created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity as quickly as feasible. The campaign's five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers

Seil Collins | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.kcl.ac.uk

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