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Hope for epilepsy treatment as human intelligence gene identified

Scientists from Imperial College London have identified two gene networks that are linked to human intelligence, offering potential insights into better treatments for people with epilepsy.

The research, published in Nature Neuroscience, is the first to identify specific genes associated with intelligence.

'We know that genetics plays a role in intelligence but until now haven't known which genes are relevant. This research highlights some of genes involved in human intelligence, and how they interact with each other,' said lead author of the study, Dr Michael Johnson.

From examining gene expression in mouse and human brain samples to identify genes associated with cognitive ability, the researchers found two gene network clusters, called M1 and M3. M1 was found to contain over 1000 different genes,  and M3, 150.

Scientists then analysed the genes of 6700 people with neurodevelopmental disease, intellectual disability and epileptic encephalopathy who had taken IQ tests to assess cognitive abilities, memory, attention and reasoning. These participants were compared with approximately 1000 healthy control participants.

The analysis showed that genes influencing intelligence and ability of healthy people are the same genes that impaired cognitive ability and caused neurodisability, such as epilepsy, when mutated.

Dr Johnson said that, although each network contains hundreds of genes, it is likely that they have a 'master switch'. 'What’s exciting about this is that the genes we have found are likely to share a common regulation, which means that potentially we can manipulate a whole set of genes whose activity is linked to human intelligence.

'Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence, but that is only a theoretical possibility at the moment – we have just taken a first step along that road.'

Genetics is thought to contribute to up to 75 percent of human intelligence, but no genes or gene networks had previously been identified as being involved.  The study's authors say that identification of gene clusters associated with cognitive ability could help us understand how genetic risk variants work for neurodevelopmental disease and related cognitive phenotypes in the human brain.

'Eventually we hope that this sort of analysis will provide new insights into better treatments for neurodevelopmental disease, such as epilepsy, and ameliorate or treat the cognitive impairments associated with these devastating diseases,' said Dr Johnson.