Intelligence? It’s in your DNA, study says

Almost 10 per cent of children’s educational attainment at age 16 can be predicted from DNA alone, academics claim

A new study, led by Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, reveals that academic potential can be measured using a genetic score made up of 20,000 DNA variants.

Professor Plomin’s previous research found that 60 per cent of variations between individuals’ educational achievement could be attributed to differences in DNA. However, this used a scoring system better suited to measuring population trends.

The new scoring system, by contrast, is better suited to making individual predictions. It could therefore be used to help identify children at risk of developing learning difficulties.

Predictor of differences

Professor Plomin’s study measured academic achievement in maths and English among 5,825 pupils, all unrelated to one another. They were measured at ages 7, 12 and 16.

The findings showed that pupils’ educational achievement was strongly affected by differences in their DNA. Those with a higher DNA score were more likely to achieve an A or B grade at GCSE than their contemporaries with lower DNA scores.

And, while 65 per cent of the higher group went on to take A levels, only 35 per cent of those in the lower group did so.

The 10 per cent predictor of differences is relatively high. For example, sex difference explains 1 per cent of the variation in maths scores between boys and girls.

The King’s College academics claim that it trumps even grit, the combination of passion and perseverance which US academic Angela Duckworth believes is vital for success.

Grit predicts 5 per cent of variance in educational achievement.

Estimating population trends

Professor Plomin’s previous research has found that 60 per cent of variations between individuals’ educational achievement could be attributed to differences in DNA. But these older studies examined all genetic effects, including common and rare variants, interactions between genes, and interactions between genes and the environment.

The latest study, however, estimates genetic influence from common variants only. This explains the discrepancy between the 10 per cent and 60 per cent estimates.

The value of the new scores is that they allow academics to estimate genetic effects for academic achievement – or any trait – at an individual level, based on a person’s DNA. The previous study was more useful in estimating population trends.

The academics say that the new findings, published today in Journal of Molecular Psychology, mark a tipping point in the prediction of academic achievement. They argue that this could help identify children who are at a greater risk of having learning difficulties.

Professor Plomin 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.”

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInGoogle GmailShare