KU Leuven: International team identifies genetic link between facial features and brain shape

An interdisciplinary team led by KU Leuven and Stanford has identified 76 overlapping genetic locations that shape both our face and brain. What the researchers did not find is evidence that this genetic overlap also translates into a person’s traits or risk of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Their findings thereby debunk some stubborn pseudoscientific claims about what is written on our faces.

There had been indications for a genetic link between the shape of our face and that of our brain for some time, says Professor Peter Claes of the Laboratory for Image Processing in Genetics at KU Leuven. “But our knowledge of that link was based on research with model organisms and clinical knowledge of extremely rare conditions. We wanted to map the genetic link between the facial and brain shapes of individuals much more broadly, and that for common genetic variations in the larger non-clinical population. ”


Brain scans and DNA from the UK Biobank
In their search for genetic links between facial and brain shapes , the team applied a methodology that Peter Claes and his colleagues previously used to identify genes that determine the shape of our face. Claes: “In those previous studies, we analyzed 3D images of faces and linked various data points on those faces to genetic information to find correlations.” For example, the researchers identified various genes that shape our face.

For this new study, the team used those earlier insights and the data available in the UK Biobank, a database from which they extracted MRI brain scans and genetic information from 20,000 individuals. Claes: “To be able to analyze the MRI scans, we had to measure the brains on the images and apply data points. In doing so, we looked specifically at variations in the pleated outer surface of the brain – the typical ‘walnut shape’, say. We then linked the data from the image analyzes to the available genetic information. For example, we identified 472 genome locations that influence the shape of our brain; 351 of those locations have never been reported before. In total, 76 locations were also found to be linked to the shape of our face.

No genetic link to behavior or neuropsychiatric conditions
Just as important is what the researchers did not find, Claes continues. “We found a clear genetic link between the shape of a person’s face and brain, but that overlap is largely unrelated to that person’s cognitive traits or behavior.”

In concrete terms: even with advanced technologies you cannot predict someone’s behavior based on facial features. “Our results confirm that there is no genetic evidence for a link between a person’s face and that person’s behavior. We therefore want to explicitly distance ourselves from pseudoscientific claims in that direction. For example, there are those who claim that they can detect aggressive tendencies in faces using artificial intelligence. Such projects are not only completely unethical, they also lack any scientific basis. ”

In their study, the authors also briefly discuss conditions such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “We relied on the results that other teams previously published on the genetic basis of such neuropsychiatric disorders. After all, the link with the genes that determine our face had never been investigated. If you compare the available results with ours, you come to the conclusion that in the genetic variants that contribute to such syndromes, there is a relatively large overlap with the variants that play a role for brain shape, but not for face shape. ” In other words: neuropsychiatric disorders or the risk of them are not written on our faces either.

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