How much of our brain structure is inherited ? Neuroscientists seeking to answer that question often turn to twin pairs, as they offer a unique window for understanding the influence of genetics on who we are. New work presented at the CNS conference this week has found that brain structures involved with executive functions such as planning and organization may be more influenced by genes than previously expected.
By comparing identical twins to non-identical twins, researchers can parse out “nature” versus “nurture.” Understanding the strength of the influence of genetics is the foundation for understanding the development of brain structure, says Elena Molokotos of Suffolk University, whose poster on the topic received a CNS Graduate Student Award.
Looking at data from twin pairs from the open-access Human Connectome Project (HCP), Molokotos and her colleagues studies the genetic influence on three well-known brain networks: the default-mode network, the central-executive network, and the salience network. The default-mode network is usually associated with the things we think about when we don’t have a specific task in mind, like when we are day dreaming. The central-executive network is active when we are engaged in more focused activities, such as planning and organizing. And the salience network is thought to be the part of the brain that monitors information coming from inside and outside the body and decides what we should pay attention to.
“In all three networks, identical twins are typically more similar than non-identical twins in measures of surface area than cortical thickness,” Molokos says. The researchers also found that the central-executive network was the only region studied that showed significantly more similarities in cortical thickness for identical twins versus non-identical twin pairs.
This finding was surprising, Molokotos says, as the central-executive network is known to be affected by environmental factors such as education. “This is thought to be the case because regions in that network adapt to the current environment to maintain important cognitive functions under various conditions,” she says. “The need for adaptation would lead us to expect that, in regions like the central-executive network, genes would have less influence rather than more.”
To try to replicate these findings, Molokotos would like to apply more sophisticated statistical analyses that include measures of brain function and behavior. Molokotos says she is grateful to the Human Connectome Project for giving her and other students access to vast imaging, physiological, and behavioral data. “Access to this enormous data set is invaluable for addressing questions about the brain and behavior, including understanding the influence of genes and environment on heritability of brain structure and function.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Congratulations to all the Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Fellow Award winners!
Graduate Student Award Winners:
- Jason Samaha, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Pablo Morales, University of Oregon
- Erik Jahner, University of California Riverside
- Xingyu Ding, New York University
- Jie Zheng, University of California, Irvine
- Thomas Donoghue, University of California, San Diego
- Erika Künstler, Jena University Hospital
- Brittany Lee, San Diego State University
- Maria Mikail, CAMH
- Elena Molokotos, Suffolk University
Postdoctoral Fellow Award Winners:
- Kamin Kim, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
- Kamalini Ranasinghe, University of California, San Francisco
- Steven Weisberg, University of Pennsylvania
- Karuna Subramaniam, University of California, San Francisco
- Anne Martin, Princeton University
- Arjen Stolk, University of California, Berkeley
- Franziska Hartung, University of Pennsylvania
- Eelke Spaak, University of Oxford
- Yuan Tao, Johns Hopkins University
- Sufang Li, NIDA