“There was already evidence of a genetic link between the shape of our face and that of our brain,” said Professor Peter Claes of the Genetic Imaging Laboratory at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), co-author of a study in natural genetics published on April 5th.
However, the data available to us on this link was limited to “the search for model organisms and clinical knowledge of extremely rare diseases”. [maladies génétiques rares, ndlr]. A group of researchers, including Professor Joanna Wysocka from Stanford University, therefore tried to determine more precisely the genetic connection between our face and our brain.
Brain MRI data from 20,000 people analyzed
The team took a different approach than previous research by conducting studies on healthy individuals rather than on patients with rare genetic diseases. To do this, she implemented a methodology based on an earlier study that aimed to identify the genes responsible for face shape. In addition to this previously acquired knowledge, the researchers analyzed MRI data from the brains of 20,000 people available in the UK biobank.
Over 300 new genomic locations were identified
According to Claes’ explanation, her work focused on variations in the folded outer surface of the brain, “the typical walnut shape”. Then they made the link between the image analysis data and the genetic information available to them.
Her work focused on variations in the folded outer surface of the brain. Photo credit: Shutterstock / Jolygon
This technique allowed them to identify 472 genomic sites that affect the shape of the brain. It is believed that 351 of these locations are previously unknown. The team also discovered 76 overlapping genomic sites that shape our faces and our brains.
No genetic link with cognitive abilities
This discovery makes the hypothesis of the genetic link between the brain and face compelling, stressed Professor Claes. The researchers also found evidence that the genetic signaling pathways that make up the brain and face are enriched in parts of the genome that regulate gene activity during embryogenesis.
This makes sense because brain development and facial development are closely related. On the other hand, no genetic connection with cognitive abilities was found. These results thus help invalidate the pseudoscientific arguments that suggest a relationship between the shape of our face and our mental faculties.