University of Texas researchers find relationships between genetic development, cognition

Wynne Davis

While many would predict humans develop more as they age through experiences rather than through gene development, recent studies by psychology professors Elliot Tucker-Drob and Paige Harden and psychology graduate student Daniel Briley suggest the opposite.

The three researchers collaborated on the study “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Cognition Across Development and Context,” focusing on how certain genes are dormant for a period of life, but when they become active, they reach different levels of potential depending on people’s living environment.

“People have these genes that have the potential for them to learn and thrive … but because they’re living in impoverished situations, they’re not able to make use of those genetic potentials they have and they’re just not realizing them,” Tucker-Drob said.   

A similar result is found when looking at the genetic relationship by age, Tucker-Drob said.

“At first they’re dormant — the kids have them, but they just haven’t become active and eventually what happens once when the kids are about 10 years old is that the genes are all turned on,” Tucker-Drob said.

Briley and Tucker-Drob worked on another project, where they found cognitive ability links more with genetic differences in people as they age.

“Our results indicate that in the very early stages of a child’s life, this increase in genetic influences can primarily be attributable to ‘novel’ genetic effects,” Briley said. “This could mean that certain genes are ‘turned on’ at specific developmental periods or that as children transition into new environments genetic influences that previously were unimportant become important.”

According to Briley, one explanation for the transition is that children gain more control over their academic choices as they age.

Briley and Tucker-Drob used meta-analysis — which combines data from multiple studies — to analyze the genetic cognition relationship. A portion of this data came from research done with the Texas Twin Project, which Tucker-Drob and Harden direct. Both studies involve the hotly-debated topic of nature versus nurture, according to Tucker-Drob.

“The goal of this research isn’t to try to take a side in the nature-nurture debate — it’s actually to try to reconcile things so we can look at how genes and environments work together,” Tucker-Drob said. 

Frank Mann, a graduate student who works with Tucker-Drob, said he finds this research helpful.

“It’s not nature versus nurture; it’s nature and nurture working in concert together,” Mann said. “I think it’s fascinating research. It provides a useful tool that can adds degree of nuisance to understand a variety of developmental processes.”