The Cognomics Project

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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. The great challenge of Cognomics is to allow the transition from population-based characterizations of complex cognitive traits, to understanding the individual differences and their neural and genetic underpinning as well as the relevant environmental factors for important skills such as memory, language, arithmetic, emotion, etcetera. The Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour has the ambition to be a leading centre for Cognomics. It has world-leading expertise and infrastructure in human genetics, neuroimaging and cognition.

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. Their aim is to identify the factors influencing cognition in health and disease in 10,000 individuals from the general population. We will focus on key cognitive processes, especially related to memory, language and those relevant for psychiatric disorders. Next to behaviour, we will map the underlying brain structures and function  in combination with advanced genetic analyses.

Already more than 2,400 individuals have been included in the program. First results revealed some of the potential of the Cognomics Program: 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. The benefit for society will be enormous, since efficiency of education and labour will increase, and the increasing costs of psychiatric disease will reduce.

Last Updated on Friday, 17 August 2012 08:13