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Academically bright? Your genetics may have something to do with it, scientists say

19th July 2016

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Researchers believe genetics may play a role in academic successes of students.

A study has found DNA variants explain almost 10% of differences in academic achievement in 16-year-olds.

The research shows that DNA on its own is better at predicting educational attainment than gender or “grit” – a personality trait thought to reflect perseverance and the ability to pursue long-term goals.

Scientists looked at the influence of common genetic variants on GCSE results in maths and English in 5,825 unrelated people.

Students at an exam.
(David Davies/PA)

For each person, they produced a “polygenic” genetic influence score based on 20,000 known DNA variants – single letter changes to the genetic code known as single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs.

Some SNPs were found to be more strongly associated with academic achievement than others.

The findings from the Twins Early Development Study showed that students’ educational achievements were strongly influenced by DNA variants.

On average, those with higher polygenic scores obtained A and B grades. Average results of students at the other end of the scale were a whole grade lower.

Exam questions.
(Alex Brandon/AP)

In addition, 65% of students in the higher score group went on to do A-levels compared with 35% of those in the lower group.

Senior study author Professor Robert Plomin, from the Medical Research Council Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, said: “We are at a tipping point for predicting individuals’ educational strengths and weaknesses from their DNA.

“Polygenic scores could be used to give us information about whether a child may develop learning problems later on, and these details could guide additional support that is tailored to a child’s individual needs.

“We believe personalised support of this nature could help to prevent later developmental difficulties.”

Students at a school.
(David Jones/PA)

Lead researcher Saskia Selzam, also from King’s College London, said: “Through polygenic scoring, we found that almost 10% of the differences between children’s achievement is due to DNA alone.

“10% is a long way from 100% but it is a lot better than we usually do in predicting behaviour. For instance, when we think about differences between boys and girls in maths, gender explains around 1% of the variance.

“Another example is grit, which describes the perseverance of an individual, and only predicts around 5% of the variance in educational achievement.”

The findings are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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