Same Genes Drive Maths and Reading Ability

Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the University of Oxford and King’s College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

While mathematics and reading ability are known to run in families, the complex system of genes affecting these traits is largely unknown. The finding deepens scientists’ understanding of how nature and nurture interact, highlighting the important role that a child’s learning environment may have on the development of reading and mathematics skills, and the complex, shared genetic basis of these cognitive traits.

The collaborative study, published in Nature Communications as part of the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium, used data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) to analyse the influence of genetics on the reading and mathematics performance of 12-year-old children from nearly 2,800 British families.

Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered mathematics questions based on the UK national curriculum. The information collected from these tests was combined with DNA data, showing a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that influence mathematics and reading.

The image shows two children writing in school books.

Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered mathematics questions based on the UK national curriculum. The information collected from these tests was combined with DNA data, showing a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that influence mathematics and reading. Credit cybrarian77.

First author Dr Oliver Davis (UCL Genetics), said: “We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA. Both analyses show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths. However, it’s also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It’s this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are.”

Professor Robert Plomin (King’s College London), who leads the TEDS study, and one of the senior authors, said: “This is the first time we estimate genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. The study does not point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that genetic influence on complex traits, like learning abilities, and common disorders, like learning disabilities, is caused by many genes of very small effect size.

“The study also confirms findings from previous twin studies that genetic differences among children account for most of the differences between children in how easily they learn to read and to do maths. Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences. Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult – heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”

Dr Chris Spencer (Oxford University), lead author said: “We’re moving into a world where analysing millions of DNA changes, in thousands of individuals, is a routine tool in helping scientists to understand aspects of human biology. This study used the technique to help investigate the overlap in the genetic component of reading and maths ability in children. Interestingly, the same method can be applied to pretty much any human trait, for example to identify new links between diseases and disorders, or the way in which people respond to treatments.”

Notes about this genetics and cognition research

Source Bex Caygill – UCL
Contact: UCL press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Flickr user cybrarian77 and is adapted from the UCL press release. The image is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic
Original Research Full open access research for “The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component ” by Oliver S. P. Davis, Gavin Band, Matti Pirinen, Claire M. A. Haworth, Emma L. Meaburn, Yulia Kovas, Nicole Harlaar, Sophia J. Docherty, Ken B. Hanscombe, Maciej Trzaskowski, Charles J. C. Curtis, Amy Strange, Colin Freeman, Céline Bellenguez, Zhan Su, Richard Pearson, Damjan Vukcevic, Cordelia Langford, Panos Deloukas, Sarah Hunt, Emma Gray, Serge Dronov, Simon C. Potter, Avazeh Tashakkori-Ghanbaria, Sarah Edkins, Suzannah J. Bumpstead, Jenefer M. Blackwell, Elvira Bramon, Matthew A. Brown, Juan P. Casas, Aiden Corvin, Audrey Duncanson, Janusz A. Z. Jankowski, Hugh S. Markus, Christopher G. Mathew, Colin N. A. Palmer, Anna Rautanen, Stephen J. Sawcer, Richard C. Trembath, Ananth C. Viswanathan, Nicholas W. Wood, Ines Barroso, Leena Peltonen, Philip S. Dale, Stephen A. Petrill, Leonard S. Schalkwyk, Ian W. Craig, Cathryn M. Lewis, Thomas S. Price, Peter Donnelly, Robert Plomin and Chris C. A. Spencer in Nature Communications. Published online July 8 2014 doi:10.1038/ncomms5204

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component

Dissecting how genetic and environmental influences impact on learning is helpful for maximizing numeracy and literacy. Here we show, using twin and genome-wide analysis, that there is a substantial genetic component to children’s ability in reading and mathematics, and estimate that around one half of the observed correlation in these traits is due to shared genetic effects (so-called Generalist Genes). Thus, our results highlight the potential role of the learning environment in contributing to differences in a child’s cognitive abilities at age twelve.

“The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component ” by Oliver S. P. Davis, Gavin Band, Matti Pirinen, Claire M. A. Haworth, Emma L. Meaburn, Yulia Kovas, Nicole Harlaar, Sophia J. Docherty, Ken B. Hanscombe, Maciej Trzaskowski, Charles J. C. Curtis, Amy Strange, Colin Freeman, Céline Bellenguez, Zhan Su, Richard Pearson, Damjan Vukcevic, Cordelia Langford, Panos Deloukas, Sarah Hunt, Emma Gray, Serge Dronov, Simon C. Potter, Avazeh Tashakkori-Ghanbaria, Sarah Edkins, Suzannah J. Bumpstead, Jenefer M. Blackwell, Elvira Bramon, Matthew A. Brown, Juan P. Casas, Aiden Corvin, Audrey Duncanson, Janusz A. Z. Jankowski, Hugh S. Markus, Christopher G. Mathew, Colin N. A. Palmer, Anna Rautanen, Stephen J. Sawcer, Richard C. Trembath, Ananth C. Viswanathan, Nicholas W. Wood, Ines Barroso, Leena Peltonen, Philip S. Dale, Stephen A. Petrill, Leonard S. Schalkwyk, Ian W. Craig, Cathryn M. Lewis, Thomas S. Price, Peter Donnelly, Robert Plomin and Chris C. A. Spencer in Nature Communications doi:10.1038/ncomms5204

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