Kids Shape Their Development to Match Genetic Tendencies

Summary: Preschool children actively influence their own development to align with their genetic dispositions. By examining how toddlers interact with their environment, including activities like reading and puzzles, researchers found that children’s preferences impact how they engage in cognitive stimulation at home.

This active involvement helps shape their brain development alongside environmental factors. The findings emphasize the dynamic interplay between genetics and environment in early childhood, challenging the traditional views of passive developmental processes.

Key Facts:

  1. Active Participation in Development: Children as young as two influence their learning environment by choosing activities that align with their inherent preferences.
  2. Gene-Environment Interplay: The study highlights how genetic dispositions and environmental factors together contribute to the cognitive and emotional development of children.
  3. Implications for Early Intervention: Understanding these dynamics can help identify children who may benefit from early interventions, potentially preventing future learning difficulties.

Source: University of York

In a study carried out by experts in child development at the University of York, researchers have found that pre-school children actively select, shape and create their own experiences to match their genetic tendencies.

The researchers looked at how genes and the environment work together to shape the brain development of children between the ages of two and four.

They found that rather than being passive recipients of the environment around them—such as the behavior and likes and dislikes of their parents—they also had a strong say in creating their own experiences based on their inherited preferences and character traits.

This shows a little girl and DNA.
These will show that genetics and the environment contribute equally to the differences between children. Credit: Neuroscience News

The researchers looked at early cognitive stimulation at home including talking, singing, nursery rhymes, books and engaging with toys and puzzles. They found that children drove decisions on which activities to focus on and how often to do them at least as much as their caregivers.

Professor Sophie von Stumm from the Department of Education at the University of York, said, “As many parents will know, small children are already very clear about what they do and don’t like and this study cements the theory that, even at a young age, children are actively shaping their experiences at home.

“A child’s preferences and differences in character will evoke distinct reactions from their caregivers. For example, if a child enjoys reading they will sit and focus on a book, which is likely to motivate caregivers to read with them more and provide more books.

“The debate over whether a child’s character and abilities are down to nature or nurture is long-running, but our findings show how genes and the environment act as a combined force.

“Our study can also explain why even siblings growing up in the same house can differ so widely in their behavioral tendencies, emotional development, and learning abilities.”

The research is the first systematic study of genetics and the environment and how they interplay in very young children.

The report is titled “Gene-environment interplay in early life cognitive development.”

The study used data from the Twins Early Development Study, which followed over 15,000 families with twins born between 1994 and 1996 in England and Wales.

Over the course of this longitudinal study, twins’ verbal and nonverbal cognitive development was assessed at different ages, including at two, three and four, via standardized testing and extensive parent and self-reports.

Lead author of the report, Dr. Alexandra Starr, a researcher in the Department of Education at the University of York, said, “We wanted to look at the early years because we know that children are already very different before they start school, and these differences in cognitive and socio-emotional development have important long-term consequences.

“Early differences grow and become greater as children get older, leading to a ‘snowball effect.”

“The early home environment is particularly important to brain development, we know so many outcomes in later life are related to this—from educational achievement, career success and income level to well-being and the ability to have stable relationships with others.”

To tease apart the factors that aid children’s development, the researchers used a powerful method called polygenic scores. Polygenic scores capture DNA variants that are passed on from parents to children and that can indicate how likely a person is to, for example, do well at school.

The researchers tested interactions between polygenic scores for cognitive development and environmental factors.

“If we understand how children’s differences come about in early life it could help to identify children in need of intervention as soon as possible,” added Dr. Starr.

“For example, we could use DNA to identify children at genetic risk of developing reading problems, and offer them early intervention before maladaptive behaviors, like avoiding books, manifest. Preventive measures have a greater chance of being successful when implemented early in life.

“Polygenic scores are so powerful because they can predict traits at birth just as well as later in life, acting as an early warning system which could be of particular help for those children who are likely to struggle the most.”

The study found that the early home environment contributes more to differences in children than genetic effects, but the researchers believe that in future even better genetic methods will be available.

These will show that genetics and the environment contribute equally to the differences between children.

“People tend to be mistrustful of genetic testing because they fear it will result in discrimination,” added Professor von Stumm.

“Our study makes the case for more research on genetics, so that we can maximize the potential benefits of genetics and minimize their risks in the future, especially in the context of child development.

“Currently we tend to diagnose conditions like dyslexia and reading disorders when children are already struggling and have fallen behind.

“The latest advancements in genetic testing could mean we may one day be able to help children avoid reading difficulties altogether because we can support them effectively before they experience any of the struggles that are currently associated with dyslexia.”

About this genetics and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Sophie von Stumm
Source: University of York
Contact: Sophie von Stumm – University of York
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The full report “Gene-environment interplay in early life cognitive development” is available online.

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