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.