Genes may play a role in empathy, study suggests

Only 10 per cent of the variation in people's empathy was down to genes Cambridge University found

The analysis found genes determine about 10 percent of the result in empathy scores, women on average are more empathetic than men, and the gene variants associated with less empathy also have links to higher risks of autism, the researchers report in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

For the current study, the researchers collaborated with scientists at Paris Diderot University and CNRS in France, and the personalized genetics company 23andMe, to carry out a GWAS involving more than 46,000 volunteers who are participants in 23andMe research.

Empathy, which plays a key role in human relationships, has two parts: First, recognizing another person's thoughts and feelings, called cognitive empathy; and second, responding with an appropriate emotion called affective empathy. Studies in the past have explored empathy and linked it to both health benefits and harmful effects. "Each specific gene plays a small role and this makes it hard to identify them".

There is no objective measure of empathy but scientists have relied on the "empathy quotient", which is measured by a 2004 questionnaire developed at the University of Cambridge.

"This is an important step toward understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy", said Varun Warrier, a Cambridge doctoral student, and leader of the team. "Whilst empathy is clearly shaped by early experience, parenting, and other social factors, different lines of evidence suggest that empathy is partly biological", the authors write. Further people with autism show low scores in cognitive empathy but may score normally on affective empathy. "It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 percent". "Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pin-point the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy".

They might be able to thank the extra time on their own, thinking independently, as an only child.

The extra attention they get from their parents and grandparents could make them worse at getting along with others, behaving selfishly and with less empathy for others.

The researchers said there was a clear rise in creativity, and a clear fall in agreeableness, among those who grew up alone. "We did not find any significant differences in heritability between males and females", they state. Dr David Hinds added that this study opens new avenues that help understand the connections between genes and human behavior.

Comerica's (CMA) "Buy" Rating Reaffirmed at BMO Capital Markets
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This difference, however, is not genetic.

However, this difference was not due to DNA as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women.

Researchers believe this could be anything from exposure to certain hormone sin the womb to non-biological factors such as socialisation.

Results from the study showed one tenth of the variation in EQ comes from genetic factors.

This difficulty in reading emotions can become as disabling as any other disability, commented one of the leading study's authors, Simon Baron-Cohen.

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".

A genome-wide association stud (GWAS) led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, U.K., found that about 10% of variability in self-reported empathy is associated with genetic factors.


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