International team identifies being genetic link

An interdisciplinary team led by KU Leuven and Stanford has identified 76 overlapping genetic locations that shape both our face and our brain. What the researchers haven’t found is evidence that this genetic overlap also predicts a person’s behavioral and cognitive traits or risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. This means the results help debunk several persistent pseudoscientific claims about what our face reveals about us.

There were already indications of a genetic link between the shape of our face and that of our brain, explains Professor Peter Claes of the Genetic Imaging Laboratory at KU Leuven, co-lead author of the study with Professor Joanna Wysocka of Stanford University School of Medicine. “But our knowledge of this link was based on research into model organisms and clinical knowledge of extremely rare conditions,” continues Claes. “We set out to map the genetic link between face and brain shape for individuals much more broadly, and for common genetic variations in the broader non-clinical population.”

UK Biobank brain scans and DNA

To investigate the genetic underpinnings of brain shape, the team applied a methodology Peter Claes and his colleagues had used in the past to identify the genes that determine our face shape. Claes: “In these previous studies, we analyzed 3D images of faces and linked multiple data points on those faces to genetic information to find correlations.” In this way, the researchers were able to identify various genes that shape our face.

For the current study, the team drew on this previously acquired knowledge as well as data available in the UK Biobank, a database from which they used MRI brain scans and genetic information from 20 000 individuals. Claes: “To be able to analyze the MRIs, we had to measure the brains shown on the scans. Our specific focus was variations in the folded outer surface of the brain – the typical “nut shape”. We then moved on to linking the data from the image analyzes to the genetic information available. In this way, we have 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 as many as 76 genomic locations predictive of brain shape had already been found to be linked to face shape. This makes the genetic link between face and brain shape compelling.

The team also found evidence that genetic signals that influence both brain and facial shape are enriched in regions of the genome that regulate gene activity during embryogenesis, i.e. in facial progenitor cells. , or in the developing brain. That makes sense, Wysocka explains, because brain and facial development are coordinated. “But we didn’t expect this developmental crosstalk to be so genetically complex and to have such a broad impact on human variation.”

No genetic link to behavioral or neuropsychiatric disorders

At least as important is what the researchers didn’t find, says Dr. Sahin Naqvi of Stanford University School of Medicine, who is the study’s first author. “We found a clear genetic link between a person’s face and their brain shape, but this overlap is almost completely independent of that individual’s behavioral and cognitive traits.”

Concretely: even with advanced technologies, it is impossible to predict someone’s behavior based on their facial features. Peter Claes continues: “Our results confirm that there is no genetic evidence for a link between a person’s face and that person’s behavior. Therefore, we explicitly dissociate ourselves from pseudoscientific claims to the contrary. For example, some people claim that they can detect aggressive tendencies. in faces by means of artificial intelligence. Not only are such projects totally unethical, but they also lack scientific basis.

In their study, the authors also briefly touch on conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Claes: “We used as a starting point the results previously published by other teams on the genetic bases of such neuropsychiatric disorders. The possible link with the genes that determine the shape of our face had never been examined before. If you compare existing findings with our new ones, you see a relatively large overlap between genetic variants that contribute to specific neuropsychiatric disorders and those that play a role in the shape of our brains, but not those that contribute to our face. : our risk of developing a neuropsychiatric disorder is not read on our face either.


This research is a collaboration between KU Leuven, Stanford University School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Cardiff University and George Mason University.

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