Heritable factors for higher education more important in socially deprived areas


To some extent, genetic factors influence whether an individual attends college or university after finishing secondary school. In a recently published study, researchers at IGP have found that genetic factors have a larger effect on the probability to attain an higher education in more socioeconomically deprived areas. The study was published in American Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Education is a factor that is strongly associated with financial security and quality of life. Genetic factors affect to some extent (approximately 11–13 per cent) whether we attain an higher education. This kind of effect can be called heritability and is used to quantify how much a characteristic is influenced by genetic factors.

In the recently published study, the heritability for higher education was calculated for 350,000 participants in the UK Biobank, a population study from the UK. The heritability was then compared between participants with different socioeconomical backgrounds. The researchers found that genetic factors contributed with 26 per cent of the total variation in participants from more socioeconomically deprived areas, while genetic factors only contributed with 13 per cent in participants from less deprived areas. This kind of difference in heritability could depend on interactions between heredity and environment, where genetic effects are enhanced in a more socioeconomically deprived situation.

“The results are surprising since previous twin studies have shown the opposite effect,” says Mathias Rask-Andersen, researcher at IGP and first author or the study.

However, previous studies have mainly been performed in the United States and according to Mathias Rask-Andersen, the contrast between USA and UK could depend on differences in the school systems in these countries. For example, differences in access and quality of the primary school, or access to social insurances and health care.

Researcher and co-author Åsa Johansson believes that the study shows how the environment can influence genetic effects in humans.

“We have previously seen interaction effects regarding for instance body weight. It is likely that we can find similar interactions also for diseases. It is important to study these interactions since they can provide insight on how the influence of different genes is propagated. In the long run, this can also result in more individually adapted interventions for diseases, or to increase the probability for a successful schooling.

An increased heritability indicates that genetic effects are more important for higher education for individuals in financially deprived areas.

“It is possible that our observations infer that an individual with a sensitivity to not succeed with their schooling faces even larger challenges in a socioeconomically deprived area. However, it is important to emphasise that this study has been done on participants from the UK and that the results cannot necessarily be generalised for other countries,” says Mathias Rask-Andersen.

Mer information:
Paper in American Journal of Clinical Psychiatry
Mathias Rask-Andersen's and Åsa Johansson’s research

Last modified: 2022-01-26