Do genes influence our ability to recognise other people’s thoughts and feelings?
Our ability to recognise and understand people’s thoughts and feelings, known as ‘cognitive empathy’, is partly influenced by variations in our genome, a new study confirms.
The study was funded by the Autism Research Trust and was carried out at by a team at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge University, led by PhD student Varun Warrier. The team looked at how 89,000 people scored on a test called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, (or the Eyes Test for short) and matched the scores with demographic and genetic information. You can download the paper here.
The Eyes Test: recognising a person’s thoughts and feelings by reading their eyes
In the Eyes Test, people are given 36 photos of the eye region of the face, showing actors portraying different states of mind (both thoughts and feelings). Next to the photo are four words describing possible states of mind. People are asked to pick the word that best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.
People perform very differently on this test, and the range of scores on this test resembles the familiar bell curve that one sees in the population (most people scoring in the average range, and a minority scoring extremely high or extremely low). In this study, women, on average, scored slightly but statistically significantly higher than men, meaning that women on average are better at reading other people’s thoughts and feelings.
But the most significant discovery was when test results were matched with genetic variations in the population.
First, in women alone, the team found that cognitive empathy is associated with a specific region in chromosome 3, very close to a gene called LRRN1. This gene is expressed in parts of the brain that previous studies have show are involved in cognitive empathy.
The team also found out that the genetic variations that are linked to performance on the Eyes Test also increase their risk of certain psychiatric conditions. For example, they found a small but statistically significant link with risk for anorexia nervosa.
What’s next? More samples, more findings
The Cambridge team is going on to investigate if this gene is relevant to people with a diagnosis of autism. They are also using other tests, such as the Empathy Quotient, to identify more genes that might help explain why some people struggle with cognitive empathy, and why some go on to need a diagnosis of autism or a different condition.
Varun Warrier said: “It is important to underline that this study tested people in the general population, not those with a diagnosis of a specific condition, simply to understand natural variation in cognitive empathy.
Just like other traits, like height, cognitive empathy shows individual differences. We are now one step closer to understanding how this arises. But genetic factors are just part of the story, as undoubtedly social experience plays an important role too.”
If you wish to donate to the Autism Research Trust, which supports the team in Cambridge, please click here.
Varun Warrier works on the genetics of Autism Spectrum Conditions and related traits at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. You can download his paper here.
The Virgin Money London Marathon
Sunday 22nd April 2018
Since its debut in 1981, the London Marathon has raised more than £450 million for charity and holds the Guinness World Record as the largest annual fund raising event in the world.
Set over a largely flat course around the River Thames, the 26.2 mile race begins at three separate points around Blackheath and finishes in The Mall alongside St James’ Park.
The Big Half
Sunday 4th March 2018
We have two places for The Big Half, a brand new event for 2018. Celebrating the diverse demographics of London’s multi-cultural population, this 13-mile course is ideal for those who may not be ready for the full Marathon but are still after a challenge.
Created by London Marathon Events Ltd, The Big Half is a new one day festival centred around the half marathon distance, which starts at Tower Bridge and finishes in Greenwich. The Big Half is set to become one of the most remarkable days in the UK sporting calendar, so why not be part of it in its very first year!
CUHK Autism Research Fellowship in Neuroscience to Cambridge
Cambridge researcher awarded Autism Research Fellowship in Neuroscience will divide his time between Cambridge and Hong Kong
The award for the fellowship was made via ART.
Research links between the University of Cambridge and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) were deepened following the award of the inaugural CUHK Autism Research Fellowship in Neuroscience to Cambridge PhD student Dwaipayan (Deep) Adhya.
Dr Adhya, a physiologist and biochemist by training, was co-supervised by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge and Professor Jack Price of Kings College London. As part of the agreement between the University of Cambridge and CUHK, he will be based at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, where he will focus on studying the role of sex hormones in autism. During the period of the fellowship, he will also spend time at CUHK to build the collaboration.
He plans to use the revolutionary biotechnology known as induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) derived neurons, which allows scientists to take any cell in the body from a living person and then reprogram it back into being a stem cell, and then program it to grow into a nerve cell (neuron). In this way, Dr Adhya will be able to study autistic neurons as they would have grown in the womb, from human patients, and track their development from the embryonic stage.
This groundbreaking method has many advantages over previous methods such as using post-mortem brain tissue or experimental animals, neither of which allow the study of autism from the embryonic stage forward. This will build on Dr Adhya’s earlier research to enable the study of the links between genetics, gender and hormones in the autistic brain.
The agreement that led to the creation of the CUHK Autism Research Fellowship was signed by the Vice Chancellors of the two universities, Cambridge and CUHK, in February 2015.
Prof Simon Baron-Cohen said: “We are delighted that Deep has been awarded this fellowship, which will allow him to take forward his innovative doctoral work. The team in Cambridge and CUHK will deepen our understanding of the causes of autism.”
Prof Patrick Leung, Chair of CUHK’s Department of Psychology, added: “We are very excited to have the first CUHK Autism Research Fellow in Neuroscience in place, and to continue our universities’ joint research into autism.”
Survey: Autism, Vulnerability & Mental Health
Researchers at the ARC are carrying out an online survey about autism, vulnerability and mental health for adults with or without autism, and would welcome your input.
It takes around 30 minutes to complete. To take part, participants need to go to: tinyurl.com/kecvcnfca.
Thank you very much for your support.
Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace
This inspiring discussion took place on 25th April, kindly hosted by C. Hoare & Co.
The panel included Professor Simon Baron-Cohen alongside Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon and Mona Shah, MD of Harry Specters Chocolates.
Almost nine out of ten autistic people are unemployed. These two companies, Auticon and Harry Specters,though different in their approach and offering, are equally dedicated to making change and fulfilling the employment potential of those on the autistic spectrum.
Auticon is an award-winning IT and compliance consulting business. All Auticon consultants are on the autism spectrum. The company prides itself in creating autism-friendly work environments as well as delivering outstanding quality to clients. The consultants are deployed in client projects that match their skills and expertise, and they work within the client’s project team. Auticon has seen that having both autistic and non-autistic professionals in mixed project teams opens up new perspectives and will often significantly improve work output. All Auticon consultants (and clients) are offered the support of specially trained job coaches.
Harry Specters is about award-winning flavours and positive social change; Mona, Shaz and their son Ash, who has autism, are behind this social enterprise of Harry Specters Chocolates. While visiting a chocolate shop on a holiday in Scotland in 2011, Mona discovered a perfect way of combining her passion for creating positive change for people with autism with her love for chocolate. Ash came up with the name and a year later, Harry Specters was born. The company is dedicated to crafting the most delicious chocolates, while creating employment for young people with autism – who are involved in every aspect of the business, from making and packaging the products to administration, design and photography. Every lovingly handcrafted bar and chocolate helps improve the lives of people with autism.
This event, which drew on a variety of experiences, challenges and stories, highlighted the importance of finding the right work for the individual – whatever their ability or the particular line of work – to the benefit of everyone involved.
Neurodiversity in the workplace is clearly a very relevant issue, made clear by the large audience and the lively interactive Q&A session at the end.
Our thanks goes to C. Hoare & Co, as well as to our wonderful panel members.
Jack of the Red Hearts: Film Screening
This powerful film was shown on Sunday 2nd April at Christ’s College in Cambridge as part of the Autism Awareness Month. The story shares a rare insight into the life of a young girl with autism.
The event was organised by the outreach coordinator of the Cambridge Neuroscience Society, Aicha Massrali, and was introduced by Amber Ruigrok (Binks Autism Neuroscience Research Fellow & Research Associate at the Autism Research Centre). A lively open discussion followed the movie, led by Helena Leathers, a girl with autism who is an advocate for females on the spectrum.
Popcorn, snacks and refreshments were provided, the dress code was blue (Light It Up Blue for autism) and proceeds were kindly donated to the Autism Research Trust.
We are excited to have teamed up with the popular leisure and entertainment park, LEGOLAND, throughout Autism Awareness Month. The attraction is known for its exceptional educational focus including its wonderful lego therapy workshops. ART partnered these workshops at which teachers, parents and care givers received infomation about ART and the benefits of playing lego together.
Stella & Dot
ART also collaborated with boutique jewellery company, Stella & Dot, for Autism Awareness Month. S&D representative Sarah Allmond, mother of a young autistic boy, kindly hosted an event on 23rd March to raise awareness of the condition and the work of ART, and donated raffle prize and a percentage of profits on the evening.
Cambridge University RAG
We are looking forward to the street collection from this proactive RAG committee who has generously agreed to set aside the best part of a day spreading the word about ART and collecting donations from willing passersby.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us this Autism Awareness Month!
Army Charity Boxing Night Raises £50,000
101 (City of London) Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) raised a staggering £50,000 at a charity boxing event and recently presented the money to two charities. Felix Fund – The Bomb Disposal Charity and Autism Research Trust both received £25,000 at a special presentation at Carver Barracks.
The 6th of July 2016 saw the second ‘Sappers versus Gunners’ charity boxing event where 400 guests were entertained with nine bouts of boxing alongside a four-course meal and auction. The event which was held at Stamford Bridge celebrated the strength and courage of the Army and brought together military dignitaries and special guests from the sporting world.
The regiment, which is based at Carver Barracks, Essex was thrilled with the support and generosity from the guests on the evening and was delighted to meet with representatives from the two chosen charities this month. The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Hawkins said: “We are so pleased to have held such a successful boxing event for the second time. In 2015 we raised over £41,000 for charity and to have exceeded that at the 2016 event is fantastic. The two charities are so deserving and knowing there will be many beneficiaries from what was a wonderful evening, makes it all worth while.”
101 (City of London) Engineer Regiment, which specialises in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, has close links with the Felix Fund. Soldiers and families from the regiment directly benefit from the Felix Fund’s services and in 2017 the Commanding Officer of the regiment will become a member of the Felix Fund board of trustees to cement that relationship.
Jools Holland who is a patron of the Autism Research Trust and also Honorary Colonel of the regiment attended the event. He joined Lieutenant Colonel Hawkins at a special lunch to present the donation to both charities and said: ‘Not only was the Boxing Event a fantastic night, but the amount raised by the team is quite outstanding.’ Similarly, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen said ‘this money will go to great use assisting our research as we seek to better understand autism and ensure the people affected receive the best possible support.’
Presentation of funds. (L-R) Captain Tommy Roach, Jools Holland, Mrs Melanie Moughton, Chief Executive of the Felix Fund, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen FBA, Director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Trust and Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Hawkins MBE.
Festive Donation from Northallerton & District Lioness Club
A big tha