Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Same genes shape math, reading skills

Study finds about half of kids' learning ability is in their DNA

  • Print
A study finds about half of kids' learning ability is in their DNA.

ADAM WOLFFBRANDT / TRIBUNE MEDIA MCT Enlarge Image

A study finds about half of kids' learning ability is in their DNA.

You may think you're better at reading than you are at math (or vice versa), but new research suggests you're probably equally good (or bad) at both.

The reason: The genes that determine a person's ability to tackle one subject influence their aptitude at the other, accounting for about half of a person's overall ability.

The study, published last week in the journal Nature Communications, used nearly 1,500 pairs of 12-year-old twins to tease apart the effects of genetic inheritance and environmental variables on math and reading ability. Twin studies provide a clever way of assessing the balance of nature and nurture.

"Twins are like a natural experiment," said Robert Plomin, a psychologist at King's College London who worked on the study. Identical twins share 100 per cent of their DNA and fraternal twins share 50 per cent (on average), but all siblings presumably experience similar degrees of parental attentiveness, economic opportunity and so on. Different pairs of twins, in contrast, grow up in unique environments.

The researchers administered a set of math and verbal tests to the children and then compared the performances of different sets of twins. They found the twins' scores -- no matter if they were high or low -- were twice as similar among pairs of identical twins as among pairs of fraternal twins. The results indicated approximately half the children's math and reading ability stemmed from their genetic makeup.

A complementary analysis of unrelated kids corroborated this conclusion -- strangers with equivalent academic abilities shared genetic similarities.

What's more, the genes responsible for math and reading ability appear to be numerous and interconnected, not specifically targeted toward one set of skills. These so-called "generalist genes" act in concert to determine a child's aptitude across multiple disciplines.

"If you found genes for reading," Plomin said, "you have over a 50 per cent chance that those same genes would influence math."

That's not to say specialized brain circuits don't exist for different tasks, said Timothy Bates, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the study.

"If those 'squiggles on a page' the young child encounters are math or prose, different brain systems, with different genes, are involved in learning to decode them," he said. The new study just illustrates these genes build on a more general foundation of learning ability, he said.

The finding one's propensities for math and reading go hand in hand may come as a surprise to many, but it shouldn't. People often feel they possess skills in only one area simply because they perform slightly worse in the other, Plomin said, but it's all relative.

"You might think you're a little less good at math, but compared to everybody in the world, you're pretty good at math," he said.

That's great news for those who came out on top of the genetic lottery, but what about everyone else?

"We don't want to pit nature vs. nurture," Plomin said. "But for parents who still think kids are a blob of clay that you mould to be what you want them to be, I hope this data -- and there's tons of other data like this -- will convince people to recognize and respect individual differences that are genetically driven."

 

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2014 A2

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Gail Asper says museum honours her father’s vision

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(  Standup photo)-    A butterfly looks for nector on a lily Tuesday afternoon in Wolseley-JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- June 22, 2010
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Winnipeg Free Press 090528 STAND UP...(Weather) One to oversee the pecking order, a pack of pelican's fishes the eddies under the Red River control structure at Lockport Thursday morning......

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you think the Scottish independence referendum will have an effect in Canada?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google