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Genetic Influences on Cognition Increase with Age, Study Shows

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posted: Tuesday October 1, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — About 70 percent of a person’s intelligence can be explained by their DNA — and those genetic influences only get stronger with age, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, authored by psychology researchers Elliot Tucker-Drob, Daniel Briley and Paige Harden, shows how genes can be stimulated or suppressed depending on the child's environment and could help bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students. The findings are published online in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

To investigate the underlying mechanisms at work, Tucker-Drob and his colleagues analyzed data from several studies tracking the cognitive ability and environmental circumstances of twin and sibling pairs. According to the findings, genetic factors account for 80 percent of cognition for children in economically advantaged households. Yet disadvantaged children – who rank lower in cognitive performance across the board – show almost no progress attributable to their genetic makeup.

This doesn’t mean disadvantaged children are genetically inferior. Instead, they have less high-quality opportunities, such as learning resources and parental involvement, to reach their genetic potential, Tucker-Drob says. 

“Genetic influences on cognitive ability are maximized when people are free to select their own learning experiences,” says Tucker-Drob, who is an assistant professor of psychology. “We were born with blueprints; the question is how are we using our experiences to build upon our genetic makeup?”

In a related study, Daniel Briley, a psychology doctoral student, examined how genetic and environmental influences on cognition change over time. Using meta-analytic procedures — the statistical methods used to analyze and combine results from previous, related literature — Briley examined genetic and environmental influences on cognition in twin and sibling pairs from infancy to adolescence.

According to his findings, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, genes influencing cognition become activated during the first decade of life and accelerate over time. The results emphasize the importance of early literacy and education during the first decade of life.

“As children get older, their parents and teachers give them increasing autonomy to do their homework to the best of their ability, pay attention in class, and choose their peer group,” says Briley. “Each of these behaviors likely influences their academic development. If these types of behaviors are influenced by genes, then it would explain why the heritability of cognitive ability increases as children age.”

Tucker-Drob says this research highlights the possibilities for bridging the achievement gap between the rich and poor.

“The conventional view is that genes place an upper limit on the effects of social intervention on cognitive development,” says Tucker-Drob. “This research suggests the opposite. As social, educational and economic opportunities increase in a society, more children will have access to the resources they need to maximize their genetic potentials.”

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