A common set of genes play a role in learning to read and do math, with tiny variants influencing a child’s skills in these tasks, according to a study published Tuesday.
But this ability is not just gene-driven, as schooling and help from parents are also vital contributors, its authors cautioned.
Early numeracy and literacy are known to run in some families, but the genes that affect this have until now been mainly unknown.
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Scientists delved into a data pool called the Twins Early Development Study, which enrolled 12-year-olds from nearly 2,800 British families.
The team compared twins and unrelated children to see how they performed in tests for maths and reading comprehension and fluency, and then matched the children’s genomes.
Between 10 percent and half of the genes involved in reading were also involved in math, they found. Tiny variants in these shared genes influence skill level, the study said.
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“Similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths,” said Oliver Davis, a geneticist at University College London.
“However, it’s also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It’s this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are.”
Fellow researcher Robert Plomin, a professor at King’s College London, said the study was the first to estimate the impact from DNA alone on learning ability.
But, he stressed, the genetic variants that were identified were not specific “literacy or numeracy” genes.
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Instead, they formed part of a more complex mechanism in which many genes each exercised a small, but combined, effect on learning ability.
“Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognize and respect these individual differences,” said Plomin.
“Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult,” he said.
“Heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone — it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”
The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.