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Apr 19, 2012
Collaborative research utilizes 'social networking' science to identify IQ gene
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Project ENIGMA scientists found that a gene variant had heightened expression levels (shown as colored dots), which also enlarged the brain's memory centers (green areas). Credit: UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging)Everyone has been talking about a new study that links specific genes to both brain volume and IQ. But perhaps more interesting than the results of the study are the methods by which the data was compiled -- through the most extensive scientific collaboration on the brain to date. In a time when patent trolls and trade secrets seek to limit the free exchange of ideas, it is encouraging to see this group of over 100 institutions around the world working together to expand the communal knowledge base.

The international research collective, known as ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) was led by Paul Thompson, a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine.

The research appears in the latest edition of the journal, Natural Genetics, and compiles 200 scientists’ data from 21,151 test subjects worldwide. Professor Thompson likened the collaboration to Wikipedia -- an internet-based encyclopedia that no one person could write in a lifetime, but which exists because of widespread cooperative input.  In Thompson’s words, the study is “crowd-sourcing brain research . . . [and] bringing social networking to science.”  Thompson and his fellow researchers in Australia and the Netherlands had become frustrated with their inability to amass sufficient DNA scans from brain samples to pinpoint the targeted “IQ gene.” He recognized that the individual research centers couldn’t review sufficient numbers of brain scans to secure definitive results; but by collaborating through ENIGMA, they were able to create a sample large enough to reveal clear patterns in genetic variations linked to brain size.

This collaborative effort was successful in part due to the nature of the data collected -- genomic scans are digitized in such a way that they may be easily shared and conveyed remotely, while at the same time maintaining legal privacy standards. Furthermore, while individual brain imaging studies are expensive, ENIGMA enabled more extensive research through its member research centers’ pooled resources. Thompson noted that this atmosphere of shared research is not usually how scientists work. But if this study’s successful completion is any indication, perhaps it should be.

This idea of scientific collaboration ties into an important dichotomy in patent law: while the US Constitution grants patent rights to “promote the progress of science,” it also permits individual monopolization of the research that could achieve this very goal. By way of example, Myriad Genetics used shared knowledge, including the data compiled by the Human Genome Project, to isolate the BRCA1/2 genes that predict susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancers, but now seeks to persecute those who would attempt to apply and improve upon this information. Isolating these genes represented millions of dollars invested, and by right that investment should garner some return. By the same token, the members of ENIGMA pooled their resources to isolate this IQ gene, but now who is the rightful owner of this intellectual property? Will these members see any reimbursement or financial gain from their contributions? 

The patent system incentivizes creation and ingenuity by promising protection of the idea. But ENIGMA’s successful brain study suggests that the promulgation of science may be incentive enough.

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