Research highlight

Genetics: Learning about genetic variations associated with educational attainment


May 12, 2016

Genetic variations associated with the years of formal education completed by an individual are identified in a new genome-wide association study (GWAS) of nearly 300,000 individuals. The findings are published in Nature this week.

Although educational attainment - defined by number of years of schooling completed - is strongly influenced by social and environmental factors, previous studies have shown that genetic factors also exert an influence on the variation in levels of educational attainment among individuals.

Philipp Koellinger and colleagues report the results of a GWAS of 293,723 individuals of European descent whose educational attainment was assessed at or above age 30, expanding on an earlier study by the same authors of about 100,000 individuals and also aided by public data for about 110,000 individuals from the UK Biobank. They find 74 genetic variations associated with educational attainment. They also identify candidate genes at these associated regions that are preferentially expressed in neural tissue, especially during the prenatal period, and enriched in biological pathways involved in neural development.

The authors stress that these genetic associations explain only a small proportion of variation in educational attainment, which is primarily dependent on environmental factors. However, the results highlight candidate genes and pathways that can be used in future studies.

doi: 10.1038/nature17671

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