Scientists use DNA to predict reading ability through school years

Researchers from King’s College London have used a genetic scoring technique to predict reading performance throughout school years from DNA alone.

The study, published in Scientific Studies of Reading, shows that a genetic score comprising around 20,000 of DNA variants explains 5% of the differences between children’s reading performance. Students with the highest and lowest genetic scores differed by a whole two years in their reading performance.

These findings highlight the potential of using genetic scores to predict strengths and weaknesses in children’s learning abilities. According to the study authors, it seems certain that these scores can be used to identify and tackle reading difficulties early, rather than waiting until children develop these problems at school.

The researchers calculated genetic scores for educational achievement in 5,825 individuals from the Twins Early Development Study, based on genetic variants identified to be important for educational attainment. They then mapped these scores against reading ability between the ages of seven and fourteen.

Genetic scores were found to explain up to 5% of the differences between children in their reading ability. This association remained significant even after accounting for cognitive ability and family socio-economic status.

The study states that “the origins of most individual differences in diverse reading skills lie with genetic differences that help or hinder the process of learning to read. Genetic transmission explains entirely the extensive familial resemblance for reading ability. Although family-based designs have contributed immensely to our understanding of individual differences in reading ability, it is of substantial interest to use DNA alone to quantify genetic effects related to reading performance.”

The study authors note that although 5% may seem a relatively small amount, this is substantial compared to other results related to reading. For example, gender differences have been found to explain less than one per cent of the differences between children in reading ability.

Saskia Selzam, first author of the study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: “The value of polygenic scores is that they make it possible to predict genetic risk and resilience at the level of the individual … these scores could enable research on resilience to developing reading difficulties and how children respond individually to different interventions.”

Professor Robert Plomin, senior author from the IoPPN, said: “We hope these findings will contribute to better policy decisions that recognise and respect genetically driven differences between children in their reading ability.”

King’s College London is one of the top twenty-five universities in the world and among the oldest in England. It has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, the sciences and social sciences, and has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

 

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