A genetic link between your face and the shape of your brain

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Scientists have long known that there is a genetic link between the shapes of our brain and our face. For example, research shows that people with certain rare genetic diseases also have facial abnormalities, suggesting that there is a complex interaction between the structural development of the brain and the face. But the exact nature of this relationship has remained largely a mystery.

Now, a new study shows that the brain-face relationship is more closely linked than previously thought. The study, published in the journal Genetics of nature, identified 76 genetic regions that affect the shapes of the face and the brain, suggesting that the two structures engage in biological “crosstalk” during development.

The study differs from previous research on the brain-face relationship because it focused on brain images taken from a group of healthy individuals, as opposed to people with rare genetic conditions.

“We were amazed to find 76 genetic regions that affect both facial and brain shape in the human population,” said Joanna Wysocka, professor of chemical and systems biology and developmental biology at the University of Stanford. Stanford Medicine News Center. “It’s an incredible degree of overlap, and it shows how much these two structures influence each other during development.”

To find these overlaps, researchers at Stanford University and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium relied in part on previous research that identified a set of genes involved in craniofacial development. This previous research identified these genes by compare DNA with highly detailed 3D facial images of thousands of people from the US and UK

3d rendered illustration of human red brain x-ray collectionCredit: maya2008 via Adobe Stock

Armed with this information, the researchers then analyzed MRI scans and genetic data from around 20,000 people of European descent. These data were obtained from UK Biobank, a biomedical database that collected detailed genetic information from around half a million UK-based participants.

The goal was to locate the genetic locations that determine the shape of the face and the brain.

“We focused specifically on variations in the folded outer surface of the brain – the typical ‘walnut shape’,” said Peter Claes, lead author of the study and director of the Genetic Imaging Laboratory, in a report. Press release.

“We then established a link between the image analysis data and the available genetic information. In this way, we identified 472 genomic locations that impact the shape of our brain. 351 of these locations have never been reported before. To our surprise, we found that up to 76 genomic locations predictive of brain shape had previously been linked to facial shape. This makes the genetic link between the face and the shape of the brain compelling. “

The study also found that the gene signaling pathways responsible for brain and facial formation are enriched in parts of the genome that regulate gene activity during embryogenesis, i.e. the period during which an embryo develops and forms.

Taken together, the results suggest that just as the brain affects the structure of the face, the face also affects the structure of the brain.

But unlike some previous studies which suggest that facial appearance can reveal information about cognitive abilities, the new research doesn’t show that you can look at a person’s facial structure and then reliably predict their intelligence or behavior. behavioral traits. The researchers made sure to focus on this aspect of the study, given that there is a history of people trying to advance racial discrimination based on pseudo-scientific claims about the face-brain relationship. , phrenology being an example.

“The connection between the brain and the face has fascinated humans for a very long time,” said Wysocka. Stanford Medicine News Center. “Many theories have tried to explain this relationship. But our study shows that it would be wrong to think that you can predict someone’s behavior or cognitive abilities by looking at their face. The association is simply not there.


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