Which personality traits are genetic

Genes and the Environment: How Genes Affect Our Personality

Referring to his own study from the UK, Abdellaoui says he is not in any way suggesting that genes are “the only determinant of a person's educational success. It's a combination of environmental and genetic effects. "

The genetic classroom

But that's not all about reminders and restrictions. A polygenic score only depicts the "risk" of having a certain trait - but it does not necessarily indicate that a behavioral trait is actually influenced by genes on a larger scale. For example, a person's score can never be used to predict that they will never graduate from college or that they will leave school when they are 16. "I don't think that a polygenic score will ever reach a sufficient level of prognosis to be able to make such individual predictions with only halfway high accuracy," says psychologist Paige Harden from the University of Texas at Austin.

When Benjamin and his team published the last GWAS on education, his team included a 20-page FAQ appendix to explain the study's motivation. There they made it clear, for example, that, in their opinion, the results would not justify recommendations for a change in education policy. Not everyone is so cautious, however, explains Morris: "There are currently some scientific studies coming out that cannot withstand a very last sentence. It then says something like: "The DNA revolution has begun, and soon genes will be useful for predicting educational success". I think that's pretty irresponsible, ”said Morris.

He is convinced that publications should provide more context - for example, indicate that information that is already available, such as a student's previous performance, helps him to classify him more precisely than the polygenic score. In autumn 2019, a working group from the bioethics think tank "The Hastings Center" started its work in the USA: It plans to monitor the research field and develop recommendations that provide researchers and stakeholders with guidelines for the working methods and communication in such studies should shake hands.

Others are more carefree - and find, for example, that gene screening of children with a view to behavior and cognitive abilities could help three-year-olds to cope better later in school. “It cannot be right that the influence of genes continues to be ignored in education. Genes are by far the most important reason for individual differences, ”says psychologist Robert Plomin from King's College London, one of the rather noisy voices in the debate with a controversial interpretation of the studies.

The bioethicist Sabatello suggests that practical use will most likely be in the areas of special education or special needs education. It is conceivable that parents of children with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia would like to use genotyping to demonstrate the need for an educational approach tailored to their child: »Parents want the genomic information to be provided by authorities or educational institutions convince them that their children need the special intervention. ”However, there is currently no polygenic score that would allow a reliable assessment of the genetic contribution to disorders such as ADHD, autism and the like. More comprehensive and meaningful studies are currently under way, including a large GWAS on ADHD - they may bring more clarity in the future.

In general, it may sound selfless and good at first to want to identify and support children with increased educational needs - but historical precedents lurk here that give cause for concern. As early as the early 20th century, IQ tests had been developed to identify children who should be given special attention. The results of the tests were then used very quickly to discriminate against minorities or to deport people classified as "insane" to special facilities.

This is also pointed out by Daphne Martschenko, who did her doctorate on the topic of “Attitudes in pedagogy to genetics” at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain: “Many teachers are concerned that the experimental use of genetics in pedagogy may be misused to prevent racial and to validate class-based differences «.

In fact, GWAS are also mainly carried out with data from people of European descent, which makes it difficult to apply the results to ethnic groups with different compositions. "It's a really practical problem that we don't have good genetic indicators for the children of the People of Color," says Harden. And this, says Morris, could exacerbate existing inequality in education. "It's better not to do something that doesn't benefit everyone in the system."

Responsible research

In the research field, many agree which of the applications driven by gene data will bring the greatest benefit in the future: It should be possible to better research the contribution of environmental influences to complex behavioral traits by looking at the contribution of genes to this or other examined traits in Calculates the future more precisely. According to Harden, this topic is “less sexy. But it is a much better idea to work with genetics as a control variable to find out how learning works. ”For example, researchers could include children with similar polygenic scores in the control and test groups when testing interventions.

It could also be useful for science to find out whether a genetic influence itself is also influenced by the living environment of the individual - i.e. whether certain gene variants are only effective under certain circumstances. More demanding genetic studies could also address the importance of »genetic nurture«: the phenomenon that environmental influences influence gene activities, which is then incorrectly interpreted as a purely genetic influence. This effect could also be effective in terms of education: Well-educated parents pass on their genes, but at the same time also have a less direct effect by generally promoting their children's schooling.

Most of the scientists in the research field prioritize more and larger studies, in which clearer signals are discernible, and on looking at other characteristics such as income and social withdrawal. The pedagogues who work directly on the educational front do not need any additional input from genetics when striving for improvement, says Sabatello: “We have to look at the living environment. Hungry children cannot study. We don't have to have analyzed your genes for that. "


This article was originally published in "A Complex Inheritance" in "Nature".