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Largest genetic study of brain structure identifies how the brain is organized

Published in Biology, Brain/Neurology.

The largest ever study of the genetics of the brain—encompassing some 36,000 brain scans—has identified more than 4,000 genetic variants linked to brain structure. The results of the study, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, are published in Nature Genetics.

Our brains are very complex organs, with huge variety between individuals in terms of the overall volume of the brain, how it is folded and how thick these folds are. Little is known about how our genetic make-up shapes the development of the brain.

To answer this question, a team led by researchers at the Autism Research Center, University of Cambridge, accessed MRI scans from over 32,000 adults from the UK Biobank cohort and over 4,000 children from the US-based ABCD study. From these scans, the researchers measured multiple properties of the outermost layer of the brain called the cortex. These included measures of the area and volume of the cortex as well as how the cortex is folded.

They then linked these properties, measured both across the entire cortex as well as in 180 individual regions of the cortex, to genetic information across the genome. The team identified over 4,000 genetic variants linked to brain structure.

These findings have allowed researchers to confirm and, in some cases, identify, how different properties of the brain are genetically linked to each other.