Sofie Valk, what shapes our mind and brain?
She wants to understand how innate and the environmental factors shape our brain and ultimately our thoughts and feelings: Sofie Valk, head of the new research group "Cognitive Neurogenetics" at the MPI CBS. A conversation about how she wants to investigate the function of brain structure, how genes and environment make us who we are - and how challenges drive her personally.
Ms. Valk, what is your new research group at MPI CBS about?
In the Cognitive Neurogenetics group we study how brain structure and function are shaped by innate and environmental factors. Cortical brain regions are spatially organized across the cortical mantle in a way that reflects both their function and genetic make-up, and the location tells us something about the evolutionary history of that area. The unique layout of the human brain gives rise to complex functions such as social behavior and imagination. Importantly, environmental factors, such as sleep, stress, or social interaction shape the brain as well. The findings of our research can hopefully contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between brain and cognition.
The influence of evolution, genes and the environment on the brain and behavior - how do you want to investigate this?
Ha, yes, I guess it is a rather ambitious research question, but I like a challenge. For most of our research we will use open datasets with large-samples of imaging and behavioral data of humans and non-human primates. These open datasets provide us a great resource with which we can explore our research questions and validate our results across samples and measurements. For example, using twin- or family-based pedigree neuroimaging datasets it is possible to compute the heritability and genetic correlation of brain and/or behavioral features. Also, by comparing cortical organization in humans with non-human primates we can further uncover the evolutionary basis of brain organization and associated functions.
What have you found out so far?
During my PhD at the MPI CBS, we were able to show that empathy, attention, and perspective-taking are related to certain brain networks. We found that it matters what you think and feel. That is, following mental training in each of those domains, differentiable brain networks showed structural changes.
Following that, at the Research Center Jülich, I studied the genetic basis of brain and behavior. For example, I investigated the genetic basis of large-scale brain organization using imaging data of humans and macaque monkeys. We found evidence that functional and evolutionary patterns converge in macro-scale structural organization, and so could provide a window into the innate architecture supporting human cognition. In a different project, we found that the relationship between big-five personality traits, such as Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Openness, and local brain structure is, in part, driven by shared genetic factors. However, the associations were weak and largely non-generalizable across different samples. The results of this study highlight the complex relation of brain and behavior. It suggest that who we are can only partly be related to brain structure and genetics - which makes, I guess, also a lot of sense.
What is next?
In my research group, I would like to bring these two approaches together, thus, study how innate and environmental factors shape brain structure and function. I believe that combining these two different routes will provide new perspectives on how nature and nurture shapes our brain, and ultimately may help understand the individual brain.
I’m super happy to have been able to hire two amazing scientists for my team, Lina Schaare and Şeyma Bayrak. That was just before the start of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. I’m also thankful for the ongoing collaborations I have with my former mentors. Together, with my team and my collaborators, we’re currently working on a variety of exciting projects. Lina currently explores the role of genes and environment in the context of physiological measures and brain structure and function. Şeyma and I are currently investigating the role of genetic factors underlying brain organization, and are also developing several open access tools for the analysis of brain data. During the home-office phase we have set up a journal / big data club with a group of enthusiastic scientists. We discuss recent papers and methods in the field that include computational neuroanatomy and imaging genetics as well as good scientific practice such as dealing with sample bias. Everybody is welcome to join, just drop me, Lina, or Şeyma a line.
(The interview was conducted by Verena Müller.)