Found: Genes That Make Kids Smart

Jonathan Leake, The Australian (Sydney), September 20, 2010

SCIENTISTS have identified more than 200 genes potentially associated with academic performance in schoolchildren.

Those schoolchildren possessing the “right” combinations achieved significantly better results in numeracy, literacy and science.

The finding emerged from a study of more than 4000 British children to pinpoint the genes and genetic combinations that influence reasoning skills and general intelligence.

One of its main conclusions is that intelligence is controlled by a network of thousands of genes with each making just a small contribution to overall intelligence, rather than the handful of powerful genes that scientists once predicted.

The researchers believe their work could eventually lead to genetic tests to predict babies’ academic potential.

“This kind of research could help us develop genetic tests to predict which kids are at risk of developing problems with their schooling, so that we could intervene to help them,” said Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, who will describe his work today at a meeting of the Royal Society.

In his research, Professor Plomin built up a database on the academic ability of 4000 children, partly from teacher assessments and partly by having the youngsters sit a battery of cognitive tests. Then he and his colleagues analysed the children’s DNA, looking for tiny variations in their genes.

There are potentially many millions of these variations, but the team restricted their search to looking at the million or so of the most common, to find out which gene variants were most frequently found in children with either a high or low level of academic achievement.

“Out of the gene variants we looked at, a couple of hundred are emerging which seem to have a small but significant relationship with ability in maths and English,” said Professor Plomin.

Such research reflects a long-term trend away from the idea that particular aspects of human physiology, appearance and behaviour are controlled by just a few genes.

This idea arose from early breakthroughs in which illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, or features such as hair and eye colour, were found to be strongly influenced by variations in the structure of just one or a few genes. Some scientists then predicted similar results for anything from heart disease to intelligence.

In recent years, however, it has become clear that most aspects of human development, health and behaviour are controlled by huge networks of individual genes, of which humans have about 25,000.

Research into height, for example, has picked out 300 genes that affect how tall people will grow, but even these genes can only explain 15 per cent of the total variations in human height. It implies that hundreds more genes must also play a part.

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