Genetics plays a role in people's empathy -- in addition to education and experience -- and could help researchers and doctors better understand autism, according to a large study.
For the first time, researchers investigated the genetic architecture of empathy using genome-wide association studies, according to results published Monday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
"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," Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England said in a press release. "This empathy difficulty can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion."
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.
Fifteen years ago, University of Cambridge scientists developed the Empathy Quotient, or EQ, a brief self-reported measure of empathy. The scientists found autistic people have more difficulties with cognitive empathy, despite intact affective empathy. Women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge, the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Diderot University in Paris, the French National Center for Scientific Research and the genetics company 23andMe conducted the largest genetics study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers. Participants completed the 60-question EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.
Only participants who were primarily of European ancestry were selected for the analysis.
They found at least 10 percent of the variation associated with genetic factors.
"This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy," said Varun Warrier, a doctoral student at Cambridge. "But since only a 10th of the variation in the degree of empathy between individuals is down to genetics, it is equally important to understand the non-genetic factors."
Like the study 15 years ago, researchers found women are, on average, more empathetic than men. But they found this variation is not a result of DNA because no differences were observed in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. They said other factors may include socialization or prenatal hormone influences.
The scientists also confirmed that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism.
"These results offer a fascinating new perspective on the genetic influences that underpin empathy," said Dr. Thomas Bourgeron, who directs the Human Genetics and Cognitive Functions Unit at the Pasteur Institute. "Each specific gene plays a small role and this makes it difficult to identify them. The next step is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy."
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