Comparing two neural maps reveals the roles of genes in cognition, perception and feeling
Many psychiatric disorders have genetic causes, but the exact mechanism of how genes influence higher brain function remains a mystery. A new study provides a map linking the genetic signature of functions across the human brain, a tool that may provide new targets for future treatments.
Led by Bratislav Misic, a researcher at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, a group of scientists performed machine learning analysis of two Open Science datasets: the gene expression atlas from the Allen Human Brain Atlas and the functional association map from Neurosynth. This allowed them to find associations between gene expression patterns and functional brain tasks such as memory, attention, and mood.
Interestingly, the team found a clear genetic signal that separated cognitive processes, like attention, from more affective processes, like fear. This separation can be traced to gene expression in specific cell types and molecular pathways, offering key insights for future research into psychiatric disorders.
Cognition, for example, was linked more to the gene signatures of inhibitory or excitatory neurons. Affective processes, however, were linked to support cells such as microglia and astrocytes, supporting a theory that inflammation of these cells is a risk factor in mental illness. The genetic signature related to affect was centred on a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex, which has been shown to be vulnerable in mental illness.
Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on March 25, 2021, this study draws a direct link between gene expression and higher brain function, by mapping gene signatures to functional processes across the human brain.
“In this work we found molecular signatures of different psychological processes,” says Misic, the paper’s senior author. “This is exciting because it provides a first step to understand how human thoughts and emotions arise from specific genes, biological pathways and cell types.”
This research was funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, awarded to McGill University for the Healthy Brains, Healthy Lives initiative, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the National Institutes of Health, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and Google.
The Neuro – The Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital – is a world-leading destination for brain research and advanced patient care. Since its founding in 1934 by renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro has grown to be the largest specialized neuroscience research and clinical center in Canada, and one of the largest in the world.
The seamless integration of research, pa tient care, and training of the world’s top minds make The Neuro uniquely positioned to have a significant impact on the understanding and treatment of nervous system disorders. In 2016, The Neuro became the first institute in the world to fully embrace the Open Science philosophy, creating the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute.
The Montreal Neurological Institute is a McGill University research and teaching institute. The Montreal Neurological Hospital is part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. For more information, please visit www.theneuro.ca