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Born to Be Bright: Is There a Gene for Learning?

New research has identified genetic markers associated with academic achievement — and failure

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Earlier this month, researcher Kevin Beaver of Florida State University reported that he and his co-authors had identified genetic markers associated with academic achievement. In their study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the scientists found that young people who possessed particular versions of three genes were more likely to finish high school and go on to college than those who carried other forms of the genes. The genes in question — DAT1, DRD2 and DRD4 — are involved in regulating the action of dopamine in the brain, and have been linked in other studies to levels of motivation, attention and intelligence. The notion that how well we learn is influenced considerably by our genes has gone from being “taboo,” Beaver writes, to achieving something like “common acceptance.”

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It is true that in recent years, scientists have produced a growing number of studies linking the capacity to learn to specific genes. A team at King’s College London, for example, has published several articles relating ability in mathematics to variations in DNA. Children who carried 10 or more of the “risk” gene variants identified by the researchers were nearly twice as likely to perform poorly in math, according to a 2010 study generated by the group. In another intriguing experiment, scientists Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that some individuals possess variants of two genes involved in brain development that may make it easier for them to learn tonal languages like Chinese.

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But scientists have long warned against attributing complex human behaviors to the action of a few genes — and learning is among the most complex things we do. The authors of these studies acknowledge this. “Mathematical ability and disability are influenced by many genes generating small effects across the entire spectrum of ability,” writes Sophia Docherty, who heads the King’s College team. Moreover, environment matters, even in the context of genes: Docherty’s research finds that children with the “risk” gene variants were especially likely to do poorly in math when they lived in chaotic homes and had negative, punitive parents. More generally, Florida’s Beaver notes, research indicates that genetic factors account for about half of the variance in educational achievement.

That leaves plenty of room for the role of support and encouragement on the part of parents, and hard work and persistence on the part of kids. Indeed, studies from another realm of research, conducted by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, demonstrate the importance of focusing on the contribution made by our own actions and choices. Dweck’s work shows that students with a “growth mind-set” — those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but is expandable through effort and practice — are more likely to keep trying when faced with a challenge, and ultimately more likely to succeed, than those who are convinced that intelligence is something you’re born with. From the perspective of Dweck’s research, the one lesson we shouldn’t draw from science is that academic achievement is all in our genes.

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