Education is a closely related factor to financial security and quality of life. Genetics to some extent (about 11-13 percent) influence whether we have a higher education. This type of effect can be called heritable and is used as a measure of how much a trait is affected by genetic factors.
Heredity is more important in high-risk areas
The heritability of higher education among 350,000 participants in the British Biobank, a population study from the United Kingdom, was calculated by researchers at Uppsala University. The heritability of participants from different socioeconomic backgrounds was then compared. The researchers then saw that genetic factors contributed 26 percent of the total variance in participants from the most socioeconomically vulnerable regions, while genetic factors contributed only 13 percent in participants from the least vulnerable regions. This type of difference in heredity could be due to interactions between heredity and environment, where genetic influences are amplified in a weaker socioeconomic situation.
The results are surprising because previous studies of twins have shown the opposite effect, says Matthias Raske-Andersen, associate professor at Uppsala University and lead author of the study.
However, previous studies have mainly been conducted in the United States. According to Mathias Rusk Andersen, the discrepancy between the United States and the United Kingdom may be due to the differences in school systems between these countries. For example, differences in access to and quality of compulsory school between socioeconomic classes, or access to social insurance and health care.
The environment influences genetic influences
The study shows how the environment can influence genetic influences on humans, says researcher and co-author Åsa Johansson, associate professor at Uppsala University and an activist in the study. SciLifeLab.
– Previously, we have seen interactive effects, for example, body weight. Perhaps we can find similar reactions to diseases, too. These interactions are important to study because they can provide insight into how the effects of different genes are spread. In the long term, this can also lead to more individualized intervention in the event of illness, or to increase the likelihood of successful schooling, says Osa Johansson.
Greater heritability suggests that genetic factors play a greater role in the higher education of individuals from economically disadvantaged regions.
It may look different in different countries
It is possible that our observations mean that an individual who is sensitive to not being successful in their education faces greater challenges in a socioeconomically weak area. However, it is important to note that this study was conducted on participants from the United Kingdom and that the results cannot necessarily be generalized to other countries, says Matthias Raske-Andersen.
So did the researchers
- The UK Biobank is a population study involving nearly half a million UK participants. Participants were aged 37-73 years when they participated during the years 2006-2010. Participants answered detailed questionnaires about lifestyle factors and were tested for numerical and verbal reasoning.
- Education level was determined from questionnaires. Socioeconomic background was determined on the basis of socioeconomic factors (salary, number of home residents, car ownership and fear of housing, etc.) from the British census. An indicator was assigned to each participant that corresponded to the socioeconomic status in the region in which the participants lived.
- The participants’ genotype was determined and the effect of each genetic variant on higher education and abstract inference was calculated using association tests.
- The cohort was divided into five parts according to the participants’ socioeconomic background. Education heritability and abstract inference were calculated by considering the effects of all genetic variants. The heritability can then be compared between different parts of the group with different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Modifying heritability for educational attainment and fluid intelligence by socioeconomic deprivation in a UK biobank. (Matthias Rusk-Andersen, Turney Carlson, and Veronica Eck, Osa Johansson). American Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2021.
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