Genes play a role in empathy, study finds

A University of Cambridge study has found genetics plays a "small but important" role in empathy.

The level of empathy a person feels towards others is partly influenced by their genes not just upbringing, a UK study has found.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge teamed up with genetics company 23andMe to conduct a genetic study of empathy.

All 46,000 participants completed the Empathy Quotient (EQ) questionnaire, a self-report measure of empathy, and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

Published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the study found 10 per cent of individual differences in empathy were a result of genetics, although the specific genes involved were not identified.

"This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics," said lead investigator Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student.

"It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 per cent," he added.

Women on average were found to be more empathetic than men. However, this difference was not due to their DNA as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women.

The study also found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy were linked to a higher risk for autism.

Co-author Professor Simon Baron-Cohen - Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University hopes the research can be used to improve understanding of the life-long developmental disorder.

"Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people such as those with autism who struggle to imagine another person's thoughts and feelings. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment," said Professor Baron-Cohen.

Source AAP

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