High achievers have brains that are wired differently from those with fewer intellectual or social abilities, researchers have claimed.
Scientists who analysed brain scan data on 461 volunteers found some had ‘connectome’ patterns linked to classically positive aspects of life, such as having a good memory and vocabulary, feeling satisfied, and being well educated.
People at the other end of the connectome scale were more likely to display negative traits including anger, rule-breaking, substance use and poor sleep quality.
The say these patterns of brain connectivity that differ between individuals may help determine whether we live happy or miserable lives, new research suggests.
The findings are among the first to emerge from the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a £20 million collaboration between Oxford University and Washington and Minnesota universities in the US.
As the study unfolds, data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans conducted on 1,200 healthy volunteers will be coupled with lifestyle and behaviour tests and questionnaires.
The Oxford team used 461 of the scans to create an averaged map of brain functioning across the participants.
Professor Stephen Smith, from the university’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, said: ‘You can think of it as a population-average map of 200 regions across the brain that are functionally distinct from each other.
Then, we looked at how much all of those regions communicated with each other, in every participant.’
The result was a ‘connectome’ for every individual – a detailed description of the extent to which the 200 separate brain regions communicate with each other.
Specific connectome variations were found to correlate with a range of behavioural and demographic measures.
A strong connectivity pattern that included symmetrical peaks on both sides of the brain in five particular regions was seen as ‘positive’.
The correlation shows that those with a connectome at one end of scale score highly on measures typically deemed to be positive, such as vocabulary, memory, life satisfaction, income and years of education.
Meanwhile, those at the other end of the scale were found to exhibit high scores for traits typically considered negative, such as anger, rule-breaking, substance use and poor sleep quality.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, echo what psychologists refer to as the ‘general intelligence g-factor’, said the scientists.
First proposed in 1904, the ‘g-factor’ is supposed to summarises an individual’s abilities in different cognitive tasks but has been criticised for failing to reflect the true complexity of what goes on in the brain.
Prof Smith said: ‘It may be 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.
‘We hope that by looking at brain imaging data we’ll 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.’