Genetics play a part in how long you study

24 July 2018

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Genes play a much larger role than previously thought in how long you might stay in formal education, say researchers from one of the largest genetic studies ever completed.

Professor Visscher from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute and Institute for Molecular Bioscience joined an international team to study the genes of more than one million people to make the discovery. 

Researchers identified 1,271 genetic variants associated with how much education someone may complete — far more than the 74 variants initially discovered in a smaller study two years ago. 

“Many of these genes are active in virtually all stages of brain development and in neural communication within the brain,” Professor Visscher said. 

Research showed the effect of genetic variants were almost identical in men and women, lending support to the hypothesis that there are no genetically based sex differences in educational attainment.

Genes a small but significant influence on education

Professor Visscher said that although the 1,271 identified genetic variants explain only around 4% of the total variation in people’s duration of education and have relatively small overall effects individually, when combined, these variations can be significant in determining a person's level of educational attainment. 

“While it’s true that even those variants with the largest effects predict, on average, only about three more weeks of schooling in those who have those variants compared to those who don’t, the combined effects taken together are as influential as those of environmental and social factors, such as socioeconomic status,” he said. 

“As education is known to be an important predictor of many other life outcomes, such as income, occupation, health and longevity, it is important to enrich our understanding of the drivers of educational attainment through large-scale genetic studies such as these.” 

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which includes hundreds of scientists from across the globe, conducted the study.

Data was drawn from the UK Biobank Resource, the personal genomics company 23andMe, and the combined results of 69 other, smaller genetic studies. 

The research was published in international scientific journal Nature Genetics.

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