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Empathy – the ability to notice and respond to the feelings of others – is a cornerstone of human interpersonal relations. Such ability is at least partly determined by genes, according to a new DNA deep dive by scientists from the University Cambridge and the DNA testing company 23andMe.

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.

“The results suggest that the genetic variations associated with empathy also play a role in psychiatric conditions and psychological traits,” the paper concludes.

The sample pool included more than 46,000 people, all customers of 23andMe. Only people who were of 97 percent European ancestry or greater were included in the analysis. 

The participants took a 60-question Empathy Quotient assessment, which scores both the ability to recognize other peoples’ feelings (cognitive empathy) and to respond to those feelings (affective empathy).

The patients all submitted saliva samples. About 10 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were part of the genotyping process undertaken by 23andMe, according to the paper.

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

Among the findings: females scored an average of 9 points higher on the EQ test, and scores increased with age (the mean age of the participants was 48.9 years), according to the paper.

They also found 11 SNPs that correlated with lower empathy scores – although they were merely of “suggestive significance,” and not statistical significance, they report.

“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. “But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual difference in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 percent.”

Further work is required, with larger samples and a still-deeper look into the genetic factors, added Thomas Bourgeron, another Cambridge author of the paper.

“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. “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.”

The company 23andMe has begun its foray into genomics and even drug research and development over the last year-plus. Last week the company received a major approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reinstate its test for BRCA gene mutations which can increase the risk of some cancers, most notably breast tumors.

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