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Genetic contributions to stability and change in intelligence from childhood to old age


Understanding the determinants of healthy mental ageing is a priority for society today1,2. So far, we know that intelligence differences show high stability from childhood to old age3,4 and there are estimates of the genetic contribution to intelligence at different ages5,6. However, attempts to discover whether genetic causes contribute to differences in cognitive ageing have been relatively uninformative7,8,9,10. Here we provide an estimate of the genetic and environmental contributions to stability and change in intelligence across most of the human lifetime. We used genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data from 1,940 unrelated individuals whose intelligence was measured in childhood (age 11 years) and again in old age (age 65, 70 or 79 years)11,12. We use a statistical method that allows genetic (co)variance to be estimated from SNP data on unrelated individuals13,14,15,16,17. We estimate that causal genetic variants in linkage disequilibrium with common SNPs account for 0.24 of the variation in cognitive ability change from childhood to old age. Using bivariate analysis, we estimate a genetic correlation between intelligence at age 11 years and in old age of 0.62. These estimates, derived from rarely available data on lifetime cognitive measures, warrant the search for genetic causes of cognitive stability and change.

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We thank the cohort participants who contributed to these studies. Genotyping of the ABC1936, LBC1921 and LBC1936 cohorts and the analyses conducted here were supported by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Phenotype collection in the LBC1921 was supported by the BBSRC, The Royal Society and The Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government. Phenotype collection in the LBC1936 was supported by Research Into Ageing (continues as part of Age UK’s The Disconnected Mind project). Phenotype collection in the ABC1936 was supported by the BBSRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. The Australian-based researchers acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. M.L. is a Royal Society of Edinburgh/Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland Personal Research Fellow. The work was undertaken in The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative (G0700704/84698), for which funding from the BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC and MRC is gratefully acknowledged.

Author information




I.J.D. and P.M.V. designed the study. J.Y. and P.M.V. performed statistical analyses, with I.J.D., M.E.G., A.T. and S.J.R. contributing to discussions regarding analyses. G.D., S.E.H., D.L., A.T., M.L. and L.M.L. performed quality control analyses and prepared data. S.E.H., M.L., L.M.L., A.J.G., J.C., P.R., H.C.F., S.J.R., P.H., L.J.W., G.M., D.J.P., J.M.S. and I.J.D. contributed genotype and phenotype data. I.J.D., P.M.V. and J.Y. contributed to writing the paper and Supplementary Information. All authors contributed to revising the paper and Supplementary Information.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ian J. Deary or Peter M. Visscher.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Notes and Data, Supplementary Tables 1-4, Supplementary Figures 1-3 with legends and additional references. (PDF 392 kb)

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Deary, I., Yang, J., Davies, G. et al. Genetic contributions to stability and change in intelligence from childhood to old age. Nature 482, 212–215 (2012).

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