12 May 2016

In the world’s largest study of its type, scientists from The University of Queensland have helped identify 74 genes that may play a role in how long a person stays at school, or whether they go to university.

 The genome-wide study analysed genetic information from 300,000 people to determine any link to educational attainment.  

UQ Queensland Brain Institute’s Professor Peter Visscher said genes accounted for up to 20 per cent variation in how much schooling a person received.

“Educational attainment is a complex phenomenon, and mostly influenced by social and other environmental factors, but we knew that genes play a role too,” Professor Visscher said.

“Your level of education determines so many other aspects of how your life unfolds. There is a widely-accepted relationship between educational attainment and health outcomes, but we don’t fully understand its causes.

“And that’s one reason for conducting this research – because of its relevance for broader medical research.

“These findings – of 74 genetic variations across a person’s whole genome – are a tiny piece of the puzzle as to why some people complete more years of education than others.

“But it’s an intriguing piece of the puzzle and definitely opens new doors for research.

“For example, we found that the genes that are associated with higher educational attainment are, on average, also associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Professor Visscher said while the role of genetics in a person’s life should not be overplayed, neither could it be ignored. 

“Crucially, this latest finding does not show that your educational attainment is something determined at birth. There are many other factors that come into play,” he said.

“These tiny genetic differences may ultimately help to understand why some people are more susceptible to early cognitive decline than others.

“It is a rich vein of material which, when applied responsibly, adds to our understanding of the human condition.”

The study was conducted by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which includes hundreds of scientists from across the globe.

The research is published in Nature.

Media: QBI Executive Communications Manager Kirsten MacGregor, k.macgregor@uq.edu.au or 0448 108 441.