Could the secret to educational achievement lie in a person's DNA? A major new study suggests that genes do play some role in how well an individual does at school.
The international team of researchers tested hundreds of thousands of genetic markers to track links between genetic variation and the level of education people achieved, including whether or not they graduated from college.
"We have now taken a small but important first step toward identifying the specific genetic variants that predict educational attainment," study co-author NYU sociologist Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University, said.
Although they have not spotted an "education gene," he and his colleagues believe the findings could also shed light on certain memory and learning problems.
Improving learning, memory, reading and disabilities
"We hope that our findings will eventually be useful for understanding biological processes underlying learning, memory, reading disabilities and cognitive decline in the elderly," said another co-author, Daniel Benjamin, a behavioral economist at Cornell and co-director of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium.
The consortium's findings were the result of a genome-wide association study that pooled information form more than 125 000 people from the United States, Australia and 13 western European countries - a total sample size more than 10 times larger than any previous genetic study of its kind.
Since the study included people from around the world, the researchers used a common measure of educational achievement, known as the International Standard Classification of Education scale, to analyze genetic variants called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs - tiny changes found at one location in a person's genetic code.
Analysis of over 2 million SNPs allowed the team to explain about 2% of the variation in educational achievement among the study's participants.
No one gene had a major impact on how far people went in school, however. The genetic markers identified as having the strongest effects on the level of education a person achieves could each only explain 0.02% or the variety between people, the team said.
That effect is minor compared with genes' effects on other developmental attributes. For example, a SNP is known to cause about 0.40% of the variation in height between different people, the researchers said.
The new study has much more power to spot genetic effects than prior efforts, the researchers added.
What previous studies have shown
"Previous studies used far smaller samples, sometimes as small as 100 individuals and rarely more than 10 000. These small samples make sense under the assumption that individual genes have large effects. However, if genes have small effects, as our study shows, then sample sizes need to be very large to produce robust findings that will reliably replicate in other samples," David Cesarini, an NYU assistant professor at the Center for Experimental Social Science and the Center for Neuroeconomics, said in the news release.
The findings, published in the journal Science, do not suggest that a person's educational path is determined at birth, the team stressed.
Conley said that a person's genetics must work in the context of his or her environment, which is "modifiable." Now that certain genetic factors tied to education have been identified, "we can now begin to examine how other factors - including public policy, parental roles and economic status - dampen or amplify genetic effects and ultimately devise better remedies to bolster educational outcomes," he said.
The consortium includes researchers at NYU, Erasmus University, Cornell University, Harvard University, the University of Bristol, and the University of Queensland and other institutions.
The US National Institutes of Health provides more information on genetics.