Our society is increasingly dependent on tailoring education, work, and disease prevention to the talents and risks of the individual person. Brain structures and brain function are key to both the talents and the cognitive limitations of the individual. Aspects of brain structure and brain function are influenced by the genetic endowment of a person. To fully appreciate a given individual's profile, we need to link detailed phenotypes of complex cognitive functions such as language and memory, with information about the brain that supports these functions and the genetics that underlies building a cognition-ready brain.
With the advent of whole genome sequencing and large-scale neuroimaging, it is now possible to create a knowledge chain all the way from the genome to the brain to complex cognition. This creates a new research field that we call Cognomics.
In the Nijmegen Cognomics Initiative, several excellent research groups from the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics join forces. Our aim is to identify the factors influencing cognition in health and disease. Using advanced genetic and brain imaging analyses, we strive to unravel how genes influence brain structure and function and key cognitive processes, especially those related to memory and language, and those relevant for psychiatric disorders.
To fulfill this goal, we have created the BIG (Brain Imaging Genetics) database that links brain images and genetic data of thousands of individuals. Research using this database has already resulted in numerous publications and promising results. We have, for example, been able to show that genes involved in cognitive disorders also influence cognition in healthy individuals, and that genes for brain disorders like Alzheimer already affect the structure of the young, healthy brain. Parallel work in model animals and the wet lab has identified the molecular networks employed by these genes and shows their effects at the cellular level.
The knowledge acquired through the Cognomics research should help us understand the mechanisms behind the effects of genes in our brain. Through this we can tailor education and work environments better to the profile of individual talents and skills. In the domain of mental disorders it should contribute to characterize individual risk factors.