Empathy

Why are some people sensitive to others and understand how they feel? Part of the answer lies in their genes.

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A new study, conducted by researchers from Cambridge University, Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe, suggests that our empathy is not only the result of our education and experience, but also partly influenced by genetic variation.
 
Jith a key role in human relationships, empathy is both the ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others and the ability to respond emotionally to them. The former is referred to as "cognitive empathy" and the latter as "emotional empathy".
 
Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient or EQ, a brief self-assessment measure of empathy. Using this test, which measures both types of empathy, the researchers showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men. People with autism, on average, have difficulty with cognitive empathy, even when their emotional empathy remains intact.
 
Today, the Cambridge team, the Pasteur Institute, Paris Diderot University, CNRS and the 23andMe genetics company are reporting the results of the largest genetic study ever conducted on empathy, using data from more than 46,000 23andMe clients. These individuals all completed the EQ questionnaire online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.
 
The results of this study, conducted by Varun Warrier (1) (University of Cambridge), by Professors Simon Baron-Cohen (2) (University of Cambridge) and Thomas Bourgeron (3) (Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Pasteur, CNRS), and by David Hinds (23andMe company), reveal first of all that our empathy is partly genetic. Indeed, at least one tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors.
 
Women more empathetic than men
Then they confirm that women are on average more empathetic than men. However, this variation is not due to our DNA, as no difference was observed in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. Therefore, the difference in empathy between the sexes is the result of other factors, such as socialization, or non-genetic biological factors such as prenatal hormonal influences, which also differ between the sexes.
 
Finally, the researchers found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk of autism.
 
Varun Warrier explains: » Ne are taking a major step in understanding the role of genetics in empathy. While genes explain only one-tenth of the variation in the degree of empathy between individuals, non-genetic factors are also essential. "
 
According to Professor Thomas Bourgeron, "Che results shed new and exciting light on the genetic influences underlying empathy. « . It states that "  Individually, each gene plays a small role and is therefore difficult to identify. The next step will be to study even more people to replicate these findings and identify the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy. "
 
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen finally adds: " Discovering that even a fraction of our differences in empathy are genetic helps us to understand individuals such as those with autism, who have difficulty imagining the feelings and emotions of others. This difficulty in reading emotions can become as debilitating as any other disability. We as a society need to support people with autism with new educational methods, alternatives or reasonable accommodations that promote their integration. "
 
The results of this study are published in the journal Nature - Translational Psychiatry on March 12, 2018.
 
Source: CNRS, Nature
Header image: illustration Hélène Gondelle

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