A large international team of researchers has found 69 unique genetic variants linked to the ability to keep track of time. In their article published in the magazine Nature Human behaviorthe group describes their genetic study that involved more than 600,000 volunteers.
Most people have the ability to keep up with time, for example by clapping in sync with the drummer on a rock song. But some people don’t have this ability. In this new effort, the researchers questioned whether there were genes responsible for the ability to keep up with a beat, suggesting that genetic variations could be responsible for those unable to keep up with time. To find out, they started by asking a large group of volunteers the simple question, “Can you clap to a musical beat?” 91.57% of the 606,825 volunteers answered yes. They also asked some of the volunteers to participate in beat measurement experiments, such as tapping a key on a keyboard in time to the beat of a song. The researchers noted that the volunteers who answered yes to the main question scored higher on such experiments.
The researchers then performed a large-scale genome-wide association study (GWAS) on the volunteers to identify the loci associated with timekeeping. They found 69 genes involved in beat synchronization that differed from those who could hold a beat and those who couldn’t. They also found that the gene VRK2 turned out to be the most significant. And they found that volunteers who identified themselves as: musicians tended to have more variants, suggesting that variants can go both ways — making people feel better or worse. Previous research has also found links between people with VRK2 variants and different types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and chronic depression.
The researchers also found that other genes in addition to those needed to recognize the timing of a beat, are involved in beat tracking, such as walking pace, breathing flow, and the processing speed of certain parts of the brain. They also suggest that the ability to sustain a beat may be related to childhood speech development and social interactions.
Maria Niarhou et al. Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity, Nature Human behavior (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x
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