74 genetic variations associated with educational attainment

12 May 2016

Researchers find 74 genetic variations associated with educational attainment
Several of these genetic variations are also linked to mental health

Researchers from the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) – an international group of 253 scientists co-founded by Philipp Koellinger of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), Daniel Benjamin of the University of Southern California and David Cesarini of New York University – identified 74 genetic variants that are associated with educational attainment. In the largest study of this type until now, the researchers analyzed genetic information of 300,000 individuals and replicated their results successfully in an independent sample of 100,000 people from the UK Biobank. Several of the identified genetic variants also predict risk for Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The results are published in Nature.

Genetic effects on educational attainment
“Educational attainment is one of the best predictors of how well people do later in life. It also predicts many health-related outcomes, including risk for dementia”, says VU-professor Philipp Koellinger (Complex Trait Genetics / Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research). “How long people go to school primarily depends on social and environmental factors, but genes matter to some extent, too. If we knew which genes play a role, we could use these insights to better understand the links between educational attainment and health. That’s one of the reasons we conducted this study.” Although genetic differences can account for roughly 20% of the variation in educational attainment across individuals, the current study found no specific gene with a large effect. Instead, the scientists found 74 genetic variants that each explain only a tiny part of the puzzle.
Koellinger: “For the genetic variant with the largest effect that we found, the difference between people with zero copies and those who have two copies of the variant is only nine more weeks of schooling. These very small effects are itself an important finding. And we can learn a lot from studying the combined effects of the genetic variants taken all together.”

Results are relevant for medical research
The researchers conducted many additional analyses in their study to help interpret their findings. For example, by combining their own results with data from previous studies, the scientists identified genetic links between educational attainment, brain anatomy, and mental health, including risk for Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Furthermore, the study suggests that genes associated with educational attainment are influential in brain development, even before birth. However, the influence of these genes on educational attainment are indirect: They influence several factors, including personality traits such as openness, that may matter for success in school. Also, the study demonstrates that the effects of genes depend on the environment in which a person grows up.

Study is the result of a large, international research consortium
The research effort is the largest study ever into genetic variants linked to human cognition. It was successfully completed thanks to the assistance of 253 researchers from 19 countries, coordinated by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC). The SSGAC is a research infrastructure designed to stimulate dialogue and cooperation among medical researchers, geneticists, and social scientists. Other researchers from the Complex Trait Genetics department of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam involved in this study were Christiaan de Leeuw, Fleur Meddens and Danielle Posthuma.

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