Genetic study offers clues to how intelligence changes through life

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Queensland and Aberdeen have also suggested that many of the genes that affect intelligence in childhood also influence intelligence in old age, according to the study published in Nature.

Identifying genetic influences on intelligence could help us to understand the relationship between knowledge and problem solving and an individual’s outcomes in life, and especially to understand why some people age better than others in terms of intelligence.

The study was conducted within The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Cross-Council Programme , with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The researchers combined DNA analysis with data from people who took intelligence tests aged 11 and again aged 65 to 79 and examined more than half a million genetic markers in about 2,000 people to work out how genetically similar they were, even though they were not related.

The new findings were made possible because Scotland has a rich source of cognitive test data. In June 1932 and June 1947 intelligence tests were carried out on almost all children born in Scotland in 1921 and 1936, respectively. For the present study, about 2000 of these people were traced and re-tested in old age.

Professor Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, said: “Until now, we have not had an estimate of how much genetic differences affect how intelligence changes across a lifetime. These new findings were possible because our research teams were able to combine a range of valuable resources. The results partly explain why some people’s brains age better than others. We are careful to suggest that our estimates do not have conventional statistical significance, but they are nevertheless useful because such estimates have been unavailable to date.”

Professor Peter Visscher of the University of Queensland, said: “Unique data and new genome technologies combined with novel analysis methods allowed us to tackle questions that were not answerable before. The results also strongly suggest how important the environment is helping us to stay sharp as we age. Neither the specific genetic nor environmental factors were identified in this research. Our results provide the warrant for others and ourselves to search for those.”

The study was supported by funding from the Age UK (Disconnected Mind project), BBSRC, The Royal Society, The Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government, the Wellcome Trust, the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia), and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.