Study Offers First Genetic Analysis of People with Extremely High Intelligence

Medical Xpress, August 5, 2015

The first ever genetic analysis of people with extremely high intelligence has revealed small but important genetic differences between some of the brightest people in the United States and the general population.

Published today in Molecular Psychiatry, the King’s College London study selected 1,400 high-intelligence individuals from the Duke University Talent Identification Program. Representing the top 0.03 per cent of the ‘intelligence distribution’, these individuals have an IQ of 170 or more–substantially higher than that of Nobel Prize winners, who have an average IQ of around 145.

Genetic research on intelligence consistently indicates that around half of the differences between people can be explained by genetic factors. This study’s unique design, which focused on the positive end of the intelligence distribution and compared genotyping data against more than 3,000 people from theĀ general population, greatly enhanced the study’s power to detect genes responsible for the heritability of intelligence.

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The researchers did not find any individual protein-altering SNPs that met strict criteria for differences between the high-intelligence group and the control group. However, for SNPs that showed some difference between the groups, the rare allele was less frequently observed in the high intelligence group. This observation is consistent with research indicating that rare functional alleles are more often detrimental than beneficial to intelligence.

Professor Robert Plomin from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘Rare functional alleles do not account for much on their own but in combination, their impact is significant.

‘Our research shows that there are not genes for genius. However, to have super-high intelligence you need to have many of the positive alleles and importantly few of the negative rare effects, such as the rare functional alleles identified in our study.’

The researchers also analysed genome-wide similarity to explore the genetic architecture of intelligence.

Professor Plomin added: ‘Previous research suggests that common SNPs in total account for around 25 per cent of the variance in intelligence. The question we asked, for the first time, was–how much will these functional variants account for? We found that the functional SNPs in our study explain around 17 per cent of the differences between people in intelligence.’

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Professor Michael Simpson from the Division of Genetic and Molecular Medicine at King’s College London, said: ‘Our study demonstrates the challenges in identifying specific genetic variants that contribute to this complex trait, but provides potential insight into its genetic architecture that will inform future studies.’

[Editor’s Note: The study was limited to whites. The full paper is available here.]

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