Study reveals the roles of genes in cognition, perception, and feeling

Study links genes with function across the human brain.


Regulation of gene expression drives protein interactions that govern synaptic wiring and neuronal action. The resulting coordinated activity among neuronal populaces upholds complex psychological processes, yet how gene expression shapes cognition and emotions remains obscure.

Scientists from the Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University performed machine learning analysis of two Open Science datasets: the gene expression atlas from the Allen Human Brain Atlas and the functional association map from Neurosynth. They were also able to discover associations between gene expression patterns and functional brain tasks such as memory, attention, and mood.

This new study offers a map linking the genetic signature of functions across the human brain. Neuroscientists can use it as a tool that targets future treatments.

Using this map, scientists found a clear genetic signal that separates cognitive processes, like attention, from more effective processes, like fear. Cognition, for instance, was connected more to the gene signatures of inhibitory or excitatory neurons. Affective processes, nonetheless, were linked to support cells like microglia and astrocytes, supporting a hypothesis that inflammation of these cells is a risk factor in mental illness. The genetic signature identified with influence was centered on a brain region called the cingulate cortex, which has been demonstrated to be vulnerable in mental illness.

Bratislav Misic, a researcher at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, said, “In this work, we found molecular signatures of different psychological processes. This is exciting because it provides the first step to understand how human thoughts and emotions arise from specific genes, biological pathways, and cell types.”

This research was funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, awarded to McGill University for the Healthy Brains, Healthy Lives initiative, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the National Institutes of Health, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and Google.

Journal Reference:
  1. Hansen, J.Y., Markello, R.D., Vogel, J.W., et al. Mapping gene transcription and neurocognition across human neocortex. Nat Hum Behav (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01082-z
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