JUL 20, 2016 09:14 AM PDT

The Genetic Test That Reveals How DNA Helps Us Learn

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
Recent studies have shown that our DNA has a significant hand in our academic success as school children, and researchers have now fine-tuned the test for determining whether someone’s genes are holding them back or helping them get to the honor roll.
Image: educatedfun.wordpress.com 
The technique is called the polygenic score method, and it is designed to make sense of the thousands of genetic variants that influence academic achievement. Human traits like academic achievement are not determined by one specific gene or even a small set of genes, rather thousands of gene variants have a hand in determining an individual’s characteristics. Certain types of variants, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have a greater influence over a certain trait than others, and the polygenic score method takes the number of SNPs into account when assigning a certain value to an individual:

“The effects of these SNPs are weighed by the strength of association and then summed to a score, so that people with many SNPs related to academic achievement will have a higher polygenic score and higher academic achievement.”
The polygenic score method, developed by scientists at King’s College London and published recently in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the strongest ever prediction of academic achievement using genetic data only.
Specifically, scientists completed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of 10 million SNPs from 5,825 unrelated individuals from the Twins Early Development Study. Using the polygenic score method, they measured the academic achievement of young students aged 7, 12, and 16 in mathematics and in English. The study resulted in the discovery of 74 gene variants significantly associated with academic achievement, with “years of education” used as a measure for achievement and related traits.
Based on whether their polygenic score was high or low, scientists quickly saw after analyzing results that a child’s score strongly influenced their average chance of receiving a “good” grade (A or B) versus a “bad” grade (a full letter grade below). While 65 percent of children receiving polygenic scores considered to be high went on to make mostly “A” letter grades, only 35 percent of the children in lower score group made these grades.
“We believe that, very soon, polygenic scores will be used to identify individuals who are at greater risk of having learning difficulties,” said first author Saskia Selzam from the MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Center at King’s College London, summarizing the end goal of completing this study and designing the new polygenic score method.
Scientists from King’s College London believe their findings to be a “tipping point” in predicting academic achievement, including the new ability of school officials to pinpoint children who might have trouble in school in the future and intervene to improve the situation.  “Personalized support of this nature could help to prevent later developmental difficulties,” said senior author Robert Plomin.

Source: King’s College London
About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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