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International effort unlocks brain secrets

An international study including researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has identified five genetic variants that influence the size of structures within the brain.

QIMR Berghofer’s Drs Sarah Medland and Margie Wright and Professor Nick Martin were senior authors on the study which increases knowledge of the causes of variability in brain development.

Dr Medland said the research focussed on seven sub-cortical regions, which are associated with memory, movement, learning and motivation.

“Changes in these brain regions can lead to abnormal behaviour and disease,” Dr Medland said.

 “Identification of these genetic variants may help to determine the mechanisms of such dysfunction.”

Dr Medland said one of the genetic variants identified in the study influences the volume of the hippocampus, a key region involved in forming and storing memory.

Almost 300 scientists from 193 institutes from around the world – including QIMR Berghofer – shared results from analyses of genetic data and MRI scans from more than 30,000 individuals through the ENIGMA project.

Co-founder of Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) Professor Paul Thompson said the project’s scientists screen brain scans and genomes worldwide for factors that help or harm the brain.

“This crowd-sourcing and sheer wealth of data gives us the power to crack the brain’s genetic code,” Professor Thompson said.

Dr Medland said ENIGMA is helping scientists to improve understanding of the brain structure and development.

“Unless you know what ‘normal’ development looks like it’s hard to know how disease manifests in these sub-cortical regions,” Dr Medland said.

“Previously it’s been too expensive for any one institute to collect enough scans and genetic data to make this kind of study possible.

“By working together in large collaborative projects we can tackle these types of problems and further our understanding of the biology of the brain.”

The study has been published today by Nature