Same genes drive maths and reading ability


Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the WTCHG (lead author Chris Spencer) and King’s College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

While mathematics and reading ability are known to run in families, the complex system of genes affecting these traits is largely unknown. The collaborative study, published on 8 July 2014 in Nature Communications as part of the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium, used data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) to analyse the influence of genetics on the reading and mathematics performance of 12-year-old children from nearly 2,800 British families.

Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered mathematics questions based on the UK national curriculum. The information collected from these tests was combined with DNA data, showing a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that influence mathematics and reading.  

‘Both the twin data and the genome association study show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths’, says Oliver Davis of UCL.

Professor Robert Plomin of King’s College London, who leads the TEDS study and is one of the senior authors of this paper, says ‘This is the first time we have estimated genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. The study does not point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that genetic influence on complex traits, such as learning abilities, and common disorders, such as learning disability, is caused by many genes with very small effects.’

The study also confirms findings from previous twin studies that genetic differences between children account for most of the differences in how easily they learn to read and to do maths. ‘Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult’ says Professor Plomin. ‘It just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.’

‘We’re moving into a world where analysing millions of DNA changes, in thousands of individuals, is a routine tool in helping scientists to understand aspects of human biology’, says Chris Spencer. ‘This study used the technique to help investigate the overlap in the genetic component of reading and maths ability in children. Interestingly, the same method can be applied to pretty much any human trait, for example to identify new links between diseases and disorders, or the way in which people respond to treatments.’

The finding deepens scientists’ understanding of how nature and nurture interact, highlighting the important role that a child’s learning environment may have on the development of reading and mathematics skills, and the complex, shared genetic basis of these cognitive traits.


Oliver S.P. Davis, Gavin Band, Matti Pirinen, Claire M.A. Haworth, Emma L. Meaburn, Yulia KovasNicole Harlaar, Sophia J. Docherty, Ken B. Hanscombe, Maciej Trzaskowski, Charles J.C. Curtis, Amy Strange, Colin Freeman, Céline Bellenguez, Zhan Su, Richard Pearson, Damjan Vukcevic, Cordelia Langford, Panos Deloukas, Sarah Hunt, Emma Gray, Serge Dronov, Simon C. Potter, Avazeh Tashakkori-Ghanbaria, Sarah Edkins, Suzannah J. Bumpstead, Jenefer M. Blackwell, Elvira Bramon, Matthew A. Brown, Juan P. Casas, Aiden Corvin, Audrey Duncanson, Janusz A.Z. Jankowski, Hugh S. Markus, Christopher G. Mathew, Colin N.A. Palmer, Anna Rautanen, Stephen J. Sawcer, Richard C. Trembath, Ananth C. Viswanathan, Nicholas W. WoodInes Barroso, Leena Peltonen, Philip S. Dale, Stephen A. Petrill, Leonard S. Schalkwyk, Ian W. Craig, Cathryn M. Lewis, Thomas S. Price, The Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium 2, Peter Donnelly,
Robert Plomin 
& Chris C.A. Spencer. The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component. Nature Communications. 2014: DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5204