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Particular brain connections linked to positive human traits

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Positive traits

A new study by the Oxford University researchers reveals that there is a strong link between a particular set of connections in the brain and positive lifestyle and behavior traits. The findings of the study were published recently in Nature Neuroscience.

The team of researchers was led by the University’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain. As a part of their research, they investigated the connections in the brains for 461 people and compared them with 280 different behavioural and demographic measures that were recorded for the same participants. Their study revealed that variation in brain connectivity and an individual’s traits had a strong link; the connections in brain of people with positive lifestyles and behaviours were categorically different from the negative ones.

The data used by the team of researchers was taken from the Human Connectome Project (HCP) “ it is a $30m worth NIH funded brain imaging study carried out by Washington, Minnesota and Oxford Universities. Functional MRI scans of 1,200 healthy participants along with detailed data from tests and questionnaires are being paired up in this project. Professor Stephen Smith, lead author of the paper opined that the quality of the imaging data is the biggest strength; it is unprecedented. The spatial and temporal resolution of the fMRI data is far better than previous large datasets. It has helped to keep the number of subjects for study pretty large. Till now, the data for 500 subjects have been forwarded to researchers for analysis.

The team created an average map of the brain’s processes across the participants by taking data from the 461 scans. They then studied how much all of those regions communicated and interacted with each other, in every participant. It resulted in a connectome for every subject “ it showed how much the 200 separate brain regions communicate with each other. To further the study, the researchers added 280 different behavioural and demographic measures for each subject and carried out a ‘canonical correlation analysis’ between the two data sets – a mathematical process that can unearth relationships between the two large sets of complex variables.

It was found by the researchers that there is a strong correlation between specific variations in a subject’s connectome and their behavioural and demographic measures. It was seen that those with a connectome at one end of scale score highly on measures that are typically positive and those at the other end of the scale were seen to show negative traits. Examples of positive traits are vocabulary, memory, life satisfaction, income, years of education and examples of negative traits include anger, rule-breaking, substance use, poor sleep quality, etc.

The results of the study bear resemblance to ‘general intelligence g-factor’ – a variable first proposed in 1904 which was sometimes used to summarise a person’s abilities at different cognitive tasks. There are some obvious differences too – the new results include many real-life measures which were not included in the g-factor. The believers in g-factors are of the opinion that many intelligence-related measures are inter-related. But, g-factor also have received some criticism, as there is not enough clarity if these correlations between different cognitive abilities are truly reflecting correlations between distinct underlying brain circuits. The new results can shed some light on the same.

Professor Smith said that it is possible that with hundreds of different brain circuits, the tests that are used to measure cognitive ability actually make use of different sets of overlapping circuits. Researchers are hopeful that by looking at brain imaging data they will be able to relate connections in the brain to the specific measures, and work out what these kinds of test actually require the brain to do.