Researchers at King’s College London have developed a technique to predict the ability of children to learn to read based on their genetics. They found that certain parts of the DNA align with reading performance, and after comparing the genes of students in the Twins Early Development Study with records of their reading ability, they found that genetics, also known as polygenic scores, successfully predicting that ability.
According to the researchers, students with the highest and lowest genetic scores differed by a whole two years in their reading performance.
They also found that genes explain as much as 5 percent of the difference between student reading ability, which is significantly higher than any other metric by which this has been measured. For example, gender differences account for less than 1 percent of differences in reading ability. Even accounting for cognitive ability or socioeconomic status, the genetic factor remained at 5 percent.
“The value of polygenic scores is that they make it possible to predict genetic risk and resilience at the level of the individual,” said study lead author Saskia Selzam of King’s College London. “This is different to twin studies, which tell us about the overall genetic influence within a large population of people.”
The idea that genes can influence reading ability might seem far-fetched, but if one thinks about the ability to read as in part a physical matter, based on genetics, which leads to children facing various issues which might contribute to reading problems such as dyslexia or vision issues, then it makes a lot more sense.
However, being able to predict what issues a person might face based on their genes is a double-edged sword and raises a lot of ethical questions. As with so many ethical questions, when it comes down to it, we can simply choose to do the right thing. Being able to predict that a child will have trouble learning to read can, for example, allow parents and teachers to plan ahead in order to help that child adapt.
“We think this study provides an important starting point for exploring genetic differences in reading ability, using polygenic scoring,” said Selzam. “For instance, these scores could enable research on resilience to developing reading difficulties and how children respond individually to different interventions.”