Scientists Find Genes Associated with Educational Attainment

Medical Xpress, May 11, 2016

An international group of 253 scientists has conducted one of the largest genetic studies to date and identified 74 genetic variants that are associated with the years of formal education that an individual completes.

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“This study builds on our earlier work in which we had studied 100,000 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment,” said Daniel Benjamin, corresponding author and an associate professor of the Center for Economic and Social Research in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “This time, because of our much larger sample–almost 300,000 individuals–we were able to identify far more genetic variants that are associated with educational attainment.”

Benjamin said that genetic and environmental factors both account for variation in how much schooling a person receives. Genes only partially influence cognitive abilities and personality traits, such as persistence, that in turn affect the number of years one spends in school.

“Educational attainment is jointly influenced by genes and environment,” he said. “The genetic variants that we found account for a small fraction of the differences across individuals in education.”

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“For the variant with the largest effect, the difference between people with zero copies and those who have two copies of the variant predicts, on average, about nine more weeks of schooling,” Benjamin said.

The results suggest that the genetic influences on educational attainment are spread across thousands, if not millions, of genetic variants, most of which have not yet been identified, Benjamin said.

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By combining their own results with data from previous studies, the researchers found that many of the genes associated with educational attainment are influential in brain development, even before birth. The scientists said these genes likely play a role in cognitive function and personality traits, such as grit, that matter for school performance.

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