Genetic Influences on Cognition Increase with Age, Study Shows

Medical Xpress, October 1, 2013

About 70 percent of a person’s intelligence can be explained by their DNA—and those genetic influences only get stronger with age, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, authored by psychology researchers Elliot Tucker-Drob, Daniel Briley and Paige Harden, shows how genes can be stimulated or suppressed depending on the child’s environment and could help bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students. The findings are published online in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

To investigate the underlying mechanisms at work, Tucker-Drob and his colleagues analyzed data from several studies tracking the cognitive ability and environmental circumstances of twin and sibling pairs. According to the findings, genetic factors account for 80 percent of cognition for children in economically advantaged households.


In a related study, Daniel Briley, a psychology doctoral student, examined how genetic and environmental influences on cognition change over time. {snip}

According to his findings, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, genes influencing cognition become activated during the first decade of life and accelerate over time. {snip}

“As children get older, their parents and teachers give them increasing autonomy to do their homework to the best of their ability, pay attention in class, and choose their peer group,” says Briley. “Each of these behaviors likely influences their academic development. If these types of behaviors are influenced by genes, then it would explain why the heritability of cognitive ability increases as children age.”

Tucker-Drob says this research highlights the possibilities for bridging the achievement gap between the rich and poor.

“The conventional view is that genes place an upper limit on the effects of social intervention on cognitive development,” says Tucker-Drob. “This research suggests the opposite. As social, educational and economic opportunities increase in a society, more children will have access to the resources they need to maximize their genetic potentials.”

[Editor’s Note: Here is the study’s abstract:

Genes account for between approximately 50% and 70% of the variation in cognition at the population level. However, population-level estimates of heritability potentially mask marked subgroup differences. We review the body of empirical evidence indicating that (a) genetic influences on cognition increase from infancy to adulthood, and (b) genetic influences on cognition are maximized in more advantaged socioeconomic contexts (i.e., a Gene × Socioeconomic Status interaction). We discuss potential mechanisms underlying these effects, particularly transactional models of cognitive development. Transactional models predict that people in high-opportunity contexts actively evoke and select positive learning experiences on the basis of their genetic predispositions; these learning experiences, in turn, reciprocally influence cognition. The net result of this transactional process is increasing genetic influence with increasing age and increasing environmental opportunity.]

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