Genetics linked to empathy in massive study

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Genetics linked to empathy in massive study

"Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people, such as those with autism, who struggle to imagine another person's thoughts and feelings", comments Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who is co-corresponding author of the team's paper published today in Translational Psychiatry ("Genome-Wide Analyses of Self-Reported Empathy: Correlations with Autism, Schizophrenia, and Anorexia Nervosa").

The study, also involving the Pasteur Institute in France, appears in Translational Psychiatry. It was measured using a questionnaire.

For women who think that men just don't seem to understand, well, you're right: Men really are less empathetic than women, and a new study from England offers clues about why this might be the case. Women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men.

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The Empathy Quotient (EQ) was developed fifteen years ago by scientists at the University of Cambridge to measure empathy in adults. Each participant completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for analysis.

"This implies that the sex difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes", the study said. Earlier studies have tried to explore EQ differences in identifycal twins who have same genetic makeup to determine the genetic influences.

A groundbreaking study of 46,000 people found that genes play a role in how empathic people are, also finding that women are generally more empathic than men.

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With genetics out of the equation, it's not clear why men have less empathy than women do, Warrier said. "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". He added that this however was only one tenth of the study.

According to Thomas Bourgeron of the Paris Diderot University, "this new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved". The next step in the research would be to identify the genes and the molecular pathways that are responsible for empathy in individuals. This is an important new step in that direction he explained.

According to Warrier no two autistic individuals are alike.

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Reference: Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa, by V Warrier, R Toro, B Chakrabarti, iPSYCH-Broad Autism Group, Grove J, Borglum AD, D Hinds, T Bourgeron, and S Baron-Cohen.

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