Ever wondered why some people seem naturally smarter than others? Been jealous of that student who always gets top marks, seemingly without trying? Or sighed as the teacher had to explain a concept for the fifth time? A new study from the Free University of Amsterdam may just have found you the perfect excuse.
Free University of Amsterdam has added 40 new genes to those known to have some role in intelligence
Intelligence, defined by the oxford dictionary as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”, is a funny concept and explaining the variance that occurs within the population is an even more complex problem. Intelligence is a multifactorial trait, which varies immensely depending on your upbringing and your genes, as a recent study has proven.
Recent research from the Free University of Amsterdam has added 40 new genes to those known to have some role in intelligence, bringing the total to 52.
Work with twins has previously shown that genes account for about half (54%) of the difference that is seen in IQ scores across the population, with the rest being shaped by outside factors e.g. nutrition, pollution and a person’s social environment.
“Genes do not determine everything for intelligence,” said Danielle Posthuma, the statistical geneticist responsible for leading the study. “There are so many other factors that affect how well someone does on an IQ test.”
In fact the genes discovered in this study probably account for a mere 5% of the variance, suggesting a lot of work remains to identify and catagorise the remaining genes, which may number in the hundreds or even thousands.
This study involved sampling all genes present in 80,000 participants consisting of 60,000 adults and 20,000 children. The genome-wide association study (GWAS) showed a difference in 52 genes, of which 40 had not previously been identified. These genes are predominantly involved in brain cell development and are also associated with educational attainment, a larger head circumference at birth, a longer lifespan and autism.
research on the genetics of IQ, amongst other factors, has raised some serious moral and ethical questions
So, what’s next? According to Posthuma the next step is to block or knockout these differentiated genes in mouse models, or in cultured human neurons, to observe the effect they may have on the development of the brain. With this understanding researchers might have a chance to explain what goes wrong in conditions which lead to mental impairment.
These genes also show a significant overlap with risk of neuro-psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, as well as metabolic disorders, so observing what happens in the absence of these genes may go some way to explaining these risks.
However, research on the genetics of IQ, amongst other factors, has raised some serious moral and ethical questions about how this information should be used, if at all.Could human embryos be chosen according to their future brain power, raising the controversial concept of designer babies, selected for or engineered to include key desirable traits?
Could scientists make drugs to enhance human intelligence? If so, would only the richest have access to such powerful technology? Alternatively, could it be possible to use this knowledge to create intelligence boosting drugs, targeting key areas to give those with the money to pay a key advantage?
In any case, such developments are still a long way away, and the intense debate and legislation around these areas should hopefully ensure that this information is not misused, but these prospects are admittedly intriguing.
For more on how the role that genes play in intelligence, check out Ginny Alexander’s article here!