Same genes drive maths and reading ability

July 8, 2014, University College London
Credit: Marina Shemesh/public domain

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 of these cognitive traits.

The collaborative study, published today 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 and reading.

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 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."

Explore further: Differences in educational achievement owe more to genetics than environment

Related Stories

Differences in educational achievement owe more to genetics than environment

December 11, 2013
The degree to which students' exam scores differ owes more to their genes than to their teachers, schools or family environments, according to new research from King's College London published today in PLOS ONE.

Genetics explain why some boys and girls are bigger than others

April 23, 2014
The influence of genetic factors on differences between children's Body Mass Index (BMI) increases from 43% at age 4 to 82% at age 10, reports a new study by researchers at UCL and King's College London.

Literacy depends on nurture, not nature, education professor says

November 14, 2013
A University at Buffalo education professor has sided with the environment in the timeless "nurture vs. nature" debate after his research found that a child's ability to read depends mostly on where that child is born, rather ...

Rosin up that bow, maestro: And thank your genes

June 26, 2014
Mom or dad may have driven you to cello rehearsal all those years, but you can also thank your genes for pushing you to practice, according to new research led by a Michigan State University professor.

Who's afraid of math? Genetics plays a role, but researchers say environment still key

March 17, 2014
A new study of math anxiety shows how some people may be at greater risk to fear math not only because of negative experiences, but also because of genetic risks related to both general anxiety and math skills.

Over range of ADHD behavior, genes major force on reading achievement, environment on math

April 22, 2011
Humans are not born as blank slates for nature to write on. Neither are they behaving on genes alone.

Recommended for you

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Group recreates DNA of man who died in 1827 despite having no body to work with

January 16, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a group with deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, has partly recreated the DNA of a man who died in 1827, despite having no body to take tissue samples from. ...

The surprising role of gene architecture in cell fate decisions

January 16, 2018
Scientists read the code of life—the genome—as a sequence of letters, but now researchers have also started exploring its three-dimensional organisation. In a paper published in Nature Genetics, an interdisciplinary research ...

Study advances gene therapy for glaucoma

January 16, 2018
While testing genes to treat glaucoma by reducing pressure inside the eye, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists stumbled onto a problem: They had trouble getting efficient gene delivery to the cells that act like drains ...

How incurable mitochondrial diseases strike previously unaffected families

January 15, 2018
Researchers have shown for the first time how children can inherit a severe - potentially fatal - mitochondrial disease from a healthy mother. The study, led by researchers from the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit at the University ...

Genes that aid spinal cord healing in lamprey also present in humans

January 15, 2018
Many of the genes involved in natural repair of the injured spinal cord of the lamprey are also active in the repair of the peripheral nervous system in mammals, according to a study by a collaborative group of scientists ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.