Someday soon we will probably be able to give our children a simple genetic test for their cognitive abilities prior to their starting school. The reason for this development is that a research team has recently found the genes in our body that pertain to cognitive ability. This isn’t quite the same as measuring intelligence. Cognitive ability is defined as our ability to reason, learn, plan, make choices, and also to remember. After you become an adult, our IQ is pretty much locked in, but our cognitive abilities can keep improving through various kinds of training.
Studying Cognitive Ability
Cognitive ability is often called our fluid intelligence, but it is actually the skills that are required to be a success in school and in a person’s career. It describes how well we will react whenever new information and new situations are encountered. Even though scientists have a pretty good idea of what it really is, finding out where cognitive ability comes from on the biological side has been challenging.
Scientists have actually known for a quite few years as to which genes affect intelligence. During a 2012 study, 20 genetic factors for intelligence have been identified by the ENIGMA network, which is a consortium of high level scientists who have combined brain scans containing various genetic data in order to understand the brain better. Since that time, several more genetic links to a person’s IQ has been unveiled, which includes the KL gene—which is believe to be responsible for about 3% of IQ variation from the general population. However, cognitive ability has been much harder to locate genetically.
Over the years, there have been strong arguments that this fluid intelligence emanates primarily from the nurturing region of human experience. This is because two different studies that were conducted across a number of various countries indicated that having things like books in the home and having access to higher levels of culture seems to improve a child’s academic achievement significantly. And in spite of these results, a University of Texas study in the year 2013 revealed that 50-70% of variation in human cognition comes straight from our genes. And it gets even more complicated.
In the University of Texas study, the authors noted that “genetic influences on cognition are maximized in more advantaged socioeconomic contexts.” These genes can be either suppressed or activated in accordance with the environment that a human grows up in. What has become very clear, in this study and also others, is that our human cognition is incredibly complex, and probably is not the result of just one specific locale, but multiple locations throughout the genome.
A big problem with these studies is that they use volunteer pools that are just too small to discover these subtle genetic influences. When we get more access to bigger numbers of genomes we are much more likely to get a better picture of which genes are directly involved in cognitive ability. We will also discover whether they function in a network or function individually.
Todd Lencz, Ph.D., has this small sample dilemma from previous lab work. Thus, he led a research team from the well-known Feinstein Institute for Medical Research located in Manhasset, NY, in a huge project. This study had 107,207 participants. This is what scientists refer to as a genome-wide association study (GWAS).
These volunteers took part in a huge number of various psychological tests prior to donating their DNA. Then their genomes got sequenced and their data was compared to the data in the database which contained genetic data from some 300,000 other people. Every person’s peak level of academic accomplishments was noted. Scientists claim it is a very reliable metric to assess cognitive abilities. As a result of this study, Dr. Lencz and his associates identified some 27 loci and 350 candidate genes for human cognitive ability. Their amazing results were posted in the publication Cell Reports.
Those subjects who possessed specific neuropsychiatric disorders has been known to exhibit either mutations or even deletions at some of those loci that were identified in the study, which provided even more credibility. “The field of genomics is growing by leaps and bounds,” Dr. Lencz noted. “Because the number of genes we can discover is a direct function of the sample size available, further research with additional samples is likely to provide even more insight into how our genes play a role in cognitive ability.”
These GWAS have shown tremendous potential, and because of improved research methods and higher computer processing power, we are seeing more of them. One very interesting aspect of all this is that scientists are now looking for possible drug targets. They feel as though they have found a particular receptor which could provide a pharmacological pathway for boosting our cognitive potential.