Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Heads with Tales

Genes and the number of copies of genes influencing skull shape

15 March 2019

Heads with Tales

The lumps and bumps on our heads might make us look noble or charismatic, but for years a peculiar branch of science thought our skulls told a deeper story. Phrenology was the study of the mind through 'reading' the contours of the skull – popular in the nineteenth century when skulls were hard to come by. While some anatomists resorted to grave-robbing for specimens, in 1831 phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim worked with sculptor William Bally to create this library of 60 plaster replicas. Spurzheim believed bumpy areas on each shrunken bust represented different traits – 'hope', 'self-esteem', even 'mirthfulness'. Although debunked by modern medicine, recent studies have turned phrenology on its head – linking differences in our genes to the overall shape of the skull. Among other genes, differences in the number of copies of p53 directly influences cranial growth, perhaps producing the bony curves Spurzheim felt under his fingers nearly 200 years ago.

Written by John Ankers

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