Scientists at UCLA, worldwide collaborate to map brain size genes

Scientists have published a new map of gene variations that influence the risk for various brain diseases and conditions, including Alzheimer’s.

More than 200 researchers involved in Project ENIGMA (for Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) pored over thousands of MRI images and DNA screens from 21,151 healthy people. They looked for specific, heritable gene variations that appeared to cause disease. They sought out gene variants associated with reduced brain size, which is a marker for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They also discovered gene variants associated with larger brain size and increased intelligence.

The collaboration was led by the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA and researchers in Australia and in the Netherlands, who recruited scientists at more than 100 institutions to pool brain scans and genetic information. 

“By sharing our data with Project ENIGMA, we created a sample large enough to reveal clear patterns in genetic variation and show how these changes physically alter the brain,” Paul Thompson, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at UCLA who helped lead the effort, said in a statement.

The research was published online Sunday by the journal Nature Genetics. 

UCLA’s Thompson said that Project Enigma would next look for genes that control the brain’s wiring — which is known to be damaged in diseases like Alzheimer’s and conditions like autism and schizophrenia.