Genes influence empathy, but don't explain everything

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This implies that the sex difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes.

Empathy, which plays a key role in human relationships, has two parts: First, recognizing another person's thoughts and feelings, called cognitive empathy; and second, responding with an appropriate emotion called affective empathy.

The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur, and David Hinds, Principal Scientist at 23andMe.

Previous studies have shown that some people have greater empathy than others and it has also been found that people with autism disorders have a lower empathy index (especially cognitive).

Genetics plays a role in people's empathy - in addition to education and experience - and could help researchers and doctors better understand autism, according to a large study.

There is no objective measure of empathy but scientists have relied on the "empathy quotient", which is measured by a 2004 questionnaire developed at the University of Cambridge.

The Linkage Disequilibrium Score Regression (LDSR) was used to find genetic patterns, and to correlate any patterns with the scores from the empathy assessment.

Like the study 15 years ago, researchers found women are, on average, more empathetic than men.

It was found that the degree of empathy of a person is partly due to genetic factors, about 10%.

With genetics out of the equation, it's not clear why men have less empathy than women do, Warrier said. Women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men. As well, the findings reveal that in cases where genes are associated with lower empathy levels, there's an associated increase in the risk of autism. "It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 percent".

The new study has three important results.

Highlighting genetic factors will help scientists understand persons like the autistic ones, who have problems picturing the emotions and the feelings of the ones around them.

"This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment", said Baron-Cohen. "We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".

This is unedited, unformatted feed from the Press Trust of India wire.