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Genetic Study Involving 1.1 Million Participants Finds Genes Play Role In Educational Attainment

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The largest ever genetic study to be published in a scientific journal has revealed a link between human genes and how long people are likely to stay in school.

Genetic Variants Linked To Educational Attainment

Researchers of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Genetics and involved more than 1.1 million participants from 15 countries, identified more than 1,200 genetic variants linked to a person's educational attainment.

Study researcher Robbee Wedow, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues also developed the so-called polygenic scoring system that can roughly predict how educated a person is based on his or her DNA.

The researchers said that individual gene variants have little predictive value but the combination of the 1,271 associated gene variants, which include those with a role in neurotransmitter secretion and neuron to neuron communications, can explain variations in educational attainment and cognitive performance.

"For the SNPs taken together, we found evidence of heterogeneous effects across environments." the researchers wrote in their study. "A joint (multi-phenotype) analysis of educational attainment and three related cognitive phenotypes generates polygenic scores that explain 11-13% of the variance in educational attainment and 7-10% of the variance in cognitive performance."

Polygenic Scores

Those with the lowest genetic scores only have a 10 percent chance of having graduated from college. Those with the highest genetic score, on the other hand, have a 50 percent chance of attaining a college education.

"Individuals with high polygenic scores have, on average, higher levels of education than those with lower polygenic scores," the researchers said. "We found that in a U.S. sample of young adults (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health), 12% of those with the lowest 20% of polygenic scores graduated from college, compared with 57% of those with the highest 20% of polygenic scores."

A 2016 study also found evidence suggesting that educational level is determined by genes. Wedow nonetheless said that the polygenic score is not deterministic of academic success. Having a low score does not absolutely mean that a person will not achieve a high level of education. He cited that family situation, ambition, socioeconomic status, and other factors play bigger roles than genes.

The researchers said that the findings of the study may be useful for social and medical scientists who can use these to explore the effects of genetic variants on environmental conditions. They said that these could also provide a clearer picture of how genetics and the environment influence educational attainment.

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