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Reading and Math Genes

The popular notion that some folks have an affinity for language while others have mathematical minds – as if some unknown cerebral chasm keeps poets from comprehending calculus and theoretical physicists from writing a clear sentence – may have taken a hit this week.

A study published in Nature Communications found that around half of the genes that appear to influence a child's math capabilities also have a hand in reading.

The project examined 2,800 pairs of 12-year old twins, some identical twins, and integrated genome-wide association analyses with math and reading tests. Because so much of the difference in math and reading skills can be attributed to environmental factors such as parenting, schools, and socioeconomic factors, the researchers compared the results from the twins against unrelated children.

"You'd think that cognitively what's going on with math and reading is very different," Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist at Kings College London and author on the study, tells NPR. "Actually, people who are good at reading, you can bet, are pretty good at math too."

Although the research showed a genetic correlation in performance in these two areas, they did not identify specific genes that may be involved.

"I wish I knew what some of the genes are," Plomin says, because it would allow researchers to dig deeper into how people learn.

"What's going to be needed is very large samples of people to be able to isolate these genes," adds Douglas Detterman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and editor of the journal Intelligence. Detterman tells NPR researchers may have to analyze DNA from millions of people to begin to tease out which genes actually impact academic aptitude.