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The role of parental genotype in predicting offspring years of education: evidence for genetic nurture


Similarities between parent and offspring are widespread in psychology; however, shared genetic variants often confound causal inference for offspring outcomes. A polygenic score (PGS) derived from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) can be used to test for the presence of parental influence that controls for genetic variants shared across generations. We use a PGS for educational attainment (EA3; N 750 thousand) to predict offspring years of education in a sample of 2517 twins and both parents. We find that within families, the dizygotic twin with the higher PGS is more likely to attain higher education (unstandardized β= 0.32; p< 0.001). Additionally, however, we find an effect of parental genotype on offspring outcome that is independent of the offspring’s own genotype; this raises the variance explained in offspring years of education from 9.3 to 11.1% (∆R2 = 0.018, p< 0.001). Controlling for parental IQ or socioeconomic status substantially attenuated or eliminated this effect of parental genotype. These findings suggest a role of environmental factors affected by heritable characteristics of the parents in fostering offspring years of education.

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Thanks to the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research staff for their expert management and synthesis of the data used in this study.


The research reported here and the preparation of this manuscript were supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA09367, AA11886), the National Institute of Mental Health (MH066140), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA05147, DA013240).

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MM, JJL, and AR developed the study concept. WGI performed original data collection and aided in concept development. EAW performed the data analysis and interpretation under the instruction and supervision of JJ. EAW drafted the manuscript, and JJL, MM, and WGI provided critical revisions. JJL performed the simulations and provided the theoretical arguments reported in the supplementary material. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

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Correspondence to Emily A. Willoughby.

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Willoughby, E.A., McGue, M., Iacono, W.G. et al. The role of parental genotype in predicting offspring years of education: evidence for genetic nurture. Mol Psychiatry 26, 3896–3904 (2021).

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