It all adds up – 50% of our reading and maths abilities are down to our genes

a teacher standing in the classroom

By Patrick Barnham

As school SATs rows rumble on, could a simple new saliva test could be a far less painful way to establish everyone’s maths and English aptitude?

If you’ve ever wondered why you’re good at many things, but your maths ability lets you down a fraction, or you’ve no idea whether the word you want is “their”, “there” or “they’re”, the answer could be in your genes.

The recent row over the difficulty of this year’s SATs tests for 10–11-year-olds has highlighted just how difficult it is testing our ability in English and maths. Now, the latest research shows we should, perhaps, be studying our saliva just as much as our test papers to determine our abilities.

Research has revealed around 50% of our maths and reading abilities could stem from our genetic makeup. Now, a new genome test can analyse our own predisposition to developing good English and mathematical skills.

Leading testing expert, Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan (MBChB), Clinical Lead at London Medical Laboratory, says: ‘It’s no wonder recent SATs tests have left some children upset and parents stressed out. We could be examining our genes as well as test papers to establish our aptitude for reading and maths.

‘Learning ability is, of course, largely down to our life experiences, conditioning and talented teachers. However, the latest research reveals a substantial part of the reason for how well we all can read and write, add and subtract, is also firmly embedded in our genomes.

‘A 2014 study in the journal “Nature Communications” followed up nearly 1,500 pairs of 12-year-old twins to separate the effects of genetic inheritance and environmental factors on maths and reading abilities. It found that the twins’ scores — no matter if they were high or low — were twice as similar among pairs of identical twins as among pairs of fraternal twins. In other words, approximately half of the children’s maths and reading abilities stemmed from their genetic makeup.

‘The paper concluded that the correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component. The study discovered that shared, so-called, “generalist genes” meant twins were likely to have similar aptitudes, good or bad, for both English and maths. However, more recent research has identified some genes may play a more significant role in the development of our mathematical skills, and others play more of a part in our reading and writing ability.

‘For example, some variations in a gene called TPD2 are associated with dyslexia. Dyslexia can be a significant problem in the development of our English skills, particularly if it is not identified early. DCDC2 is another candidate gene that could relate to dyslexia. Mutations in this gene have been associated with reading disability (RD) type 2, also referred to as developmental dyslexia.

‘Our maths ability (or lack of) could be linked to variations in our BDNF gene. That’s because this gene helps determine the neural plasticity of the brain. In other words, it affects how flexible the brain is in making new connections and links between neurones to create networks of skills, learning and experiences.

‘How well we learn in general is also partly down to our genes. For example, a mutation of our Star Trek-sounding SPOCK1 gene is linked to developmental delay. SPOCK1 is an important gene in cancer but, more recently, changes in this gene have been found to impact on our maths and learning abilities. A mutation of the gene is thought to be protein damaging, potentially leading to developmental delays and other issues.

‘Most fascinating of all, a brand new study, published this year in the journal “Genes, Brain and Behaviour” identified three genes that appear to be linked to three different specific mathematical abilities. For example, variants in LINGO2 were associated with subtraction ability. The researchers also found genes or gene sets significantly associated with addition, division, magnitude perception and spatial conception ability. It concluded that different mathematical abilities may have a different genetic basis.

‘It is important to note that these genetic differences don’t always impact us overtly, instead they represent the subtle variations in each of us. Many environmental influences, such as parenting, schooling and socio-economic factors will also clearly impact on both reading and mathematical abilities. Genetics is only one piece of the puzzle, yet an important one.

‘London Medical Laboratory’s new DNA Genotype Profile Test is a simple, at-home, saliva test kit. This once-in-a lifetime test gives over 300 reports, providing insights into nutrition, traits (such as our reading and maths potential), fitness and health from our genetic blueprint.  A single saliva sample allows each of us to know more about ourselves, so we can make better decisions for a healthier future.

‘The saliva test can be taken at home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer these tests across London and nationwide in over 95 selected pharmacies and health stores. For full details, see:

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