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Effect of genes on brain regions

How genes influence the development of named regions in the subcortical part of the brain has been studied with respect to behaviour and neuropsychiatric diseases by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) and around the world, and their work was recently published in Nature.

This research will improve understanding of neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and schizophrenia that are associated with size differences in some of the subcortical brain regions investigated. It focused on seven subcortical regions that form circuits with other brain areas to coordinate movement, learning, memory and motivation, and has improved understanding of how an individual’s genes influence their subcortical brain structure.

Professor Gunter Schumann, senior researcher for the study in the UK, and Chair in Biological Psychiatry, IoPPN said:  “Many psychiatric symptoms involve alterations of subcortical brain regions. The identification of genes that influence the size of individual regions is a critical step to unravel the biological basis of mental disorders. It will help us link psychiatric symptoms to the relevant brain region and may result in new targeted therapies.”

A collaboration of nearly 300 scientists from 193 institutes across the world pooled genetic data and MRI scans from over 30,000 individuals as part of the global ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) project that is helping scientists better understand brain structure and development and is coordinated by Professor Paul Thompson of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. 

Professor Schumann continued: “This is the largest study investigating the genetics of different subcortical brain regions that regulate behaviour, both healthy and disordered. Our findings indicate that individual genes have varying degrees of influence on the size of these subcortical regions, thus shaping these behaviours. They also point to the complexity of brain development, which is subject to both genetic and environmental influences.”

One of the lead authors on the paper, Dr Sylvane Desrivières, also from the IoPPN at King’s said: “We have identified the genes that influence the volumes that subcortical brain areas will grow to under normal developmental conditions. We can now start to study the effect of such genes on brain function and their impact on brain disease development.”

The UK component of the study was funded by the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre and Dementia Unit at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London, the European Commission and funding agencies of various European countries.

Paper reference: A collaboration of authors from around the world ‘Common genetic variants influence human subcortical brain structures’ published in Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature14101  

For further information contact Tom Bragg, Press Officer at IoPPN, King’s College London, on +44(0)2078485377 or email