Published: Tue, March 13, 2018
Medicine | By Douglas Stevenson

Study finds that genes play a role in empathy

Study finds that genes play a role in empathy

The Linkage Disequilibrium Score Regression (LDSR) was used to find genetic patterns, and to correlate any patterns with the scores from the empathy assessment.

Empathy - the ability to notice and respond to the feelings of others - is a cornerstone of human interpersonal relations. This set of disorders affects indeed "cognitive empathy", namely the faculty to recognize the feelings of others. But scientists have relied on the "empathy quotient," as measured by a questionnaire developed in 2004 at the University of Cambridge. Participants completed the 60-question EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

Baron-Cohen also stressed that society should offer support to people with disabilities by using "novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion". Only people who were of 97 percent European ancestry or greater were included in the analysis. "But since only a tenth of the variation in the degree of empathy between individuals is down to genetics, it is equally important to understand the non-genetic factors".

In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the Cambridge team, working with the genetics company 23andMe and a team of worldwide scientists, report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers.

Previous research showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men. During the work, researchers found that women often have higher levels of empathy than men, but genes don't explain the difference.

Varun Warrier, of Cambridge University, said: "This is an important step..."

"The results suggest that the genetic variations associated with empathy also play a role in psychiatric conditions and psychological traits", the paper concludes. This, according to the researchers, means that if a woman is more compassionate, it has to do either with non-genetic biological factors (eg hormonal influences) or with non-biological factors such as different upbringing and socialization.

Finally, the new study found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism.

"This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved", said Bourgeron, in a school statement.

Highlighting genetic factors will help scientists understand persons like the autistic ones, who have problems picturing the emotions and the feelings of the ones around them.

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