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Gene Hunters Link Genes to Brain Size

Four New Papers May Pave the Way Toward New Treatments for Brain Diseases
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 16, 2012 -- An international team of gene hunters has zeroed in on genes that may play a role in boosting brain size and IQ.

The findings -- four studies in total -- appear online in Nature Genetics.

The implications of the new studies are much wider than whether or not you will attend an Ivy League school or become a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society. Researchers hope that, if validated by other studies, these genes may become targets for drugs that treat brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, depression, and other forms of mental illness.

More than 200 scientists from 100 institutions across the globe looked at brain scans and mapped genetic material or DNA from thousands of people. They turned up "extraordinary evidence," says Paul Thompson, PhD. He is one of the gene hunters on the team. Thompson is also a professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

Genes Are Not Destiny

The newly identified genes may affect our brain's vulnerability or resistance to brain diseases.

Genes are not destiny, Thompson says. "We can more than erase the effects of this bad gene by eating a healthy diet, exercising, and education," he says. Heart-healthy foods are known to be good for the brain as well.

All said, "the gene is one of any army of culprits we can to attack by developing new drugs."

So how far off are these drugs? "We are about five to 10 years away from developing targeted therapy which interferes with brain-aging genes," he says.

Many Genes Affect Intelligence

Richard J. Haier, PhD, reviewed the papers for WebMD. He is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. "For the last 20 years, research in intelligence has become more and more focused on the [inner workings of the] brain."

In the past, intelligence was assessed via IQ tests using paper and pencils. Now, "there has been an explosive growth in the use of imaging technologies to study intelligence," Haier tells WebMD.

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