Hundreds of new genes may underlie intelligence—but also autism and depression

Many genes work together in the brain to cause complex behavior such as intelligence or anxiety

Being smart is a double-edged sword. Intelligent people appear to live longer, but many of the genes behind brilliance can also lead to autism, anxiety, and depression, according to two new massive genetic studies.

The work also is one of the first to identify the specific cell types and genetic pathways tied to intelligence and mental health, potentially paving the way for new ways to improve education, or therapies to treat neurotic behavior.

The studies provide some of the first “hard evidence of the many genes and pathways” that work together in complex ways to build smart brains and keep them in balance, says geneticist Peter Visscher of the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who was not involved in the work.

Researchers have long known that people often inherit intelligence and some personality disorders from their parents. (Environmental factors such as education and stress also profoundly shape intelligence and mental health.) But geneticists have had trouble identifying more than a handful of genes associated with intelligence. Last year, researchers used new statistical methods that can detect strong associations between genes and specific traits to analyze health and genetic records in huge data sets. This led to the discovery of 52 genes linked to intelligence in 80,000 people.

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