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Naughty or Nice? Personality Traits Linked to Differences in Brain Structure

Summary: Researchers report on how differences in cortical anatomy relates to each of the five factors of personality.

Source: University of Cambridge.

Our personality may be shaped by how our brain works, but in fact the shape of our brain can itself provide surprising clues about how we behave – and our risk of developing mental health disorders – suggests a study published today.

According to psychologists, the extraordinary variety of human personality can be broken down into the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits, namely neuroticism (how moody a person is), extraversion (how enthusiastic a person is), openness (how open-minded a person is), agreeableness (a measure of altruism), and conscientiousness (a measure of self-control).

In a study published today in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, an international team of researchers from the UK, US, and Italy have analysed a brain imaging dataset from over 500 individuals that has been made publicly available by the Human Connectome Project, a major US initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health. In particular, the researchers looked at differences in the brain cortical anatomy (the structure of the outer layer of the brain) as indexed by three measures – the thickness, area, and amount of folding in the cortex – and how these measures related to the Big Five personality traits.

“Evolution has shaped our brain anatomy in a way that maximizes its area and folding at the expense of reduced thickness of the cortex,” explains Dr Luca Passamonti from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge. “It’s like stretching and folding a rubber sheet – this increases the surface area, but at the same time the sheet itself becomes thinner. We refer to this as the ‘cortical stretching hypothesis’.”

“Cortical stretching is a key evolutionary mechanism that enabled human brains to expand rapidly while still fitting into our skulls, which grew at a slower rate than the brain,” adds Professor Antonio Terracciano from the Department of Geriatrics at the Florida State University. “Interestingly, this same process occurs as we develop and grow in the womb and throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood: the thickness of the cortex tends to decrease while the area and folding increase.”

In addition, as we get older, neuroticism goes down – we become better at handling emotions. At the same time, conscientiousness and agreeableness go up – we become progressively more responsible and less antagonistic.

Image shows a drawing of a brain in red and blue.

The researchers looked at differences in the brain cortical anatomy (the structure of the outer layer of the brain) as indexed by three measures – the thickness, area, and amount of folding in the cortex – and how these measures related to the Big Five personality traits. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the University of Cambridge press release.

The researchers found that high levels of neuroticism, which may predispose people to develop neuropsychiatric disorders, were associated with increased thickness as well as reduced area and folding in some regions of the cortex such as the prefrontal-temporal cortices at the front of the brain.

In contrast, openness, which is a personality trait linked with curiosity, creativity and a preference for variety and novelty, was associated with the opposite pattern, reduced thickness and an increase in area and folding in some prefrontal cortices.

“Our work supports the notion that personality is, to some degree, associated with brain maturation, a developmental process that is strongly influenced by genetic factors,” says Dr Roberta Riccelli from Italy.

“Of course, we are continually shaped by our experiences and environment, but the fact that we see clear differences in brain structure which are linked with differences in personality traits suggests that there will almost certainly be an element of genetics involved,” says Professor Nicola Toschi from the University ‘Tor Vergata’ in Rome. “This is also in keeping with the notion that differences in personality traits can be detected early on during development, for example in toddlers or infants.”

Image shows cortical thickness associated with neuroticism.

The researchers found that high levels of neuroticism, which may predispose people to develop neuropsychiatric disorders, were associated with increased thickness as well as reduced area and folding in some regions of the cortex such as the prefrontal-temporal cortices at the front of the brain. Credit: The researchers/University of Cambridge.

The volunteers whose brains were imaged as part of the Human Connectome Project were all healthy individuals aged between 22 and 36 years with no history of neuro-psychiatric or other major medical problems. However, the relationship between differences in brain structure and personality traits in these people suggests that the differences may be even more pronounced in people who are more likely to experience neuro-psychiatric illnesses.

“Linking how brain structure is related to basic personality traits is a crucial step to improving our understanding of the link between the brain morphology and particular mood, cognitive, or behavioural disorders,” adds Dr Passamonti. “We also need to have a better understanding of the relation between brain structure and function in healthy people to figure out what is different in people with neuropsychiatric disorders.”

This is not the first time the researchers have found links between our brain structure and behaviour. A study published by the group last year found that the brains of teenagers with serious antisocial behaviour problems differ significantly in structure to those of their peers.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Craig Brierley – University of Cambridge
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com images are adapted from the University of Cambridge press release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Surface-based morphometry reveals the neuroanatomical basis of the five-factor model of personality” by Roberta Riccelli; Nicola Toschi; Salvatore Nigro; Antonio Terracciano; and Luca Passamonti in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Published online January 24 2017 doi:10.1093/scan/nsw175

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University of Cambridge “Naughty or Nice? Personality Traits Linked to Differences in Brain Structure.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 January 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/personality-brain-structure-6005/>.
University of Cambridge (2017, January 25). Naughty or Nice? Personality Traits Linked to Differences in Brain Structure. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved January 25, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/personality-brain-structure-6005/
University of Cambridge “Naughty or Nice? Personality Traits Linked to Differences in Brain Structure.” http://neurosciencenews.com/personality-brain-structure-6005/ (accessed January 25, 2017).

Abstract

Surface-based morphometry reveals the neuroanatomical basis of the five-factor model of personality

The five-factor model (FFM) is a widely used taxonomy of human personality; yet its neuro anatomical basis remains unclear. This is partly because past associations between gray-matter volume and FFM were driven by different surface-based morphometry (SBM) indices (i.e. cortical thickness, surface area, cortical folding or any combination of them). To overcome this limitation, we used Free-Surfer to study how variability in SBM measures was related to the FFM in n = 507 participants from the Human Connectome Project.
Neuroticism was associated with thicker cortex and smaller area and folding in prefrontal–temporal regions. Extraversion was linked to thicker pre-cuneus and smaller superior temporal cortex area. Openness was linked to thinner cortex and greater area and folding in prefrontal–parietal regions. Agreeableness was correlated to thinner prefrontal cortex and smaller fusiform gyrus area. Conscientiousness was associated with thicker cortex and smaller area and folding in prefrontal regions. These findings demonstrate that anatomical variability in prefrontal cortices is linked to individual differences in the socio-cognitive dispositions described by the FFM. Cortical thickness and surface area/folding were inversely related each others as a function of different FFM traits (neuroticism, extraversion and consciousness vs openness), which may reflect brain maturational effects that predispose or protect against psychiatric disorders.

“Surface-based morphometry reveals the neuroanatomical basis of the five-factor model of personality” by Roberta Riccelli; Nicola Toschi; Salvatore Nigro; Antonio Terracciano; and Luca Passamonti in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Published online January 24 2017 doi:10.1093/scan/nsw175

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