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Scientists Can Now Predict Children’s Reading Ability Using DNA

Groundbreaking DNA research out of Kings College London has discovered a significant link between genetic scores and reading scores in kids. Specifically, they found that polygenic scores — the numbers based on gene variants that predict traits and diseases — helped explain 5 percent of gaps in children’s reading ability. To put that in some context, gender only accounts for less than one percent of the difference, and people are constantly pointing to that factor to explain variance in scores. This is 5 times that. Could this be the beginning of gene-tailored education programs to close those gaps? Hey, A Brave New World isn’t going to read itself.

The study, published today in the journal The Scientific Studies Of Reading, looked at the polygenic scores from 5,825 kids ages 7 to 14 obtained from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). Researchers analyzed around 20,000 DNA variants and were able to identify genetic sequences associated with educational attainment. When they mapped them against the average reading ability kids in that age range — and accounted for variables like cognitive ability and socioeconomic status — 5 percent of differences in reading ability still pointed to the DNA.

This isn’t the first time Kings College has studied polygenic scores related to academic achievement. Another study from the same TEDS dataset published in July found that these scores can predict up to 10 percent of differences in achievement in general and noted that the genetic link gets stronger with age. One more additional study from the same institution found that up to 60 percent of academic achievement could be genetic.

Outside of Kings College London, past studies have linked genetics to early reading in children. And while other research has attempted to similarly to link genetics and athletic achievement, it’s had as much success as Gregor Mendel trying to slam dunk. So if a kid doesn’t make the team, it’s probably not their dad’s fault. But if they’re benched for bad grades, more than half of it might be.

importance of going to school

Wikimedia Commons

Does this mean that parents will be able to control their child’s academic performance one day? Perhaps. But there’s a big difference between scientists having the technology and normal people having access. The gene-editing tool, CRIPSR, gives scientists the ability to essentially copy edit errors in genetic sequences. It also comes with a lot of ethical baggage that has to be unpacked before it goes mainstream. Currently, Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, which gives parents some choice in terms of sex and preventing genetic diseases, is the closest the public can get.

These findings are just a jumping off point for scientists to potentially use CRISPR to isolate genetic sequences associated with educational achievement and change them. The best case scenario is that parents will add more nature into the nurture they’re already providing. Because it’s not about designer babies but about smarter kids. After all, mankind is going to need a generation of geniuses to fix the rest of the genome.