Educational attainment is in the genes

May 27 2016

Educational attainment is in the genes, at least partially, after an international genome-wide study of over 400,000 people identified 74 loci associated with schooling levels and tenacity.

Geneticists and health statisticians from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute collaborated in the study, published today in the prestigious journal Nature, which found that genetic factors account for at least 20 per cent of variation between individuals.

Professor Rodney Scott, leader of the HMRI Information Based Medicine program, said the finding was significant because of the size of the study. A previous study looked at just over 100,000.

“There have been previous hints that there are genetic components in how people stick to a task until they become good at it. We see it in sports people and now high achievers in education,” Professor Scott said.

“It’s not necessarily about intelligence but learning ability. Clearly, not all of us have the willpower to do something repetitively.

“We found more genetic loci, some of which are linked to connectivity and interactivity in the brain. Conversely there are certain genes that appear in Body Mass Index levels and also psychological disorders which potentially impact an individual’s ability to attain education.”

The study recruited 300,000 people of Caucasian background from Australia, Europe, the UK and US then repeated the tests in another 100,000 people to ensure the results stood up to scrutiny.

Researchers say that cognitive performance can statistically account for 23-40 per cent of the genetic association and the personality trait ‘openness to experience’ for approximately 7 per cent.

“While social and environmental factors also contribute heavily to learning capacity and can over-ride the genetic influences, this study will help in better understanding brain development and also psychological disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia. 

University of Newcastle researchers Dr Chris Oldmeadow, Dr Liz Holliday and Professor John Attia also worked on the study, which included data from 2,500 people in the Hunter Region.