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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Generalist genes analysis of DNA markers associated with mathematical ability and disability reveals shared influence across ages and abilities

Sophia J Docherty1*, Yulia Kovas12, Stephen A Petrill3 and Robert Plomin1

Author Affiliations

1 King's College London, MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London, SE5 8AF, UK

2 Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, UK

3 Center for Developmental and Health Genetics, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

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BMC Genetics 2010, 11:61  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-11-61

Published: 5 July 2010



The Generalist Genes Hypothesis is based upon quantitative genetic findings which indicate that many of the same genes influence diverse cognitive abilities and disabilities across age. In a recent genome-wide association study of mathematical ability in 10-year-old children, 43 SNP associations were nominated from scans of pooled DNA, 10 of which were validated in an individually genotyped sample. The 4927 children in this genotyped sample have also been studied at 7, 9 and 12 years of age on measures of mathematical ability, as well as on other cognitive and learning abilities.


Using these data we have explored the Generalist Genes Hypothesis by assessing the association of the available measures of ability at age 10 and other ages with two composite 'SNP-set' scores, formed from the full set of 43 nominated SNPs and the sub-set of 10 SNPs that were previously found to be associated with mathematical ability at age 10. Both SNP sets yielded significant associations with mathematical ability at ages 7, 9 and 12, as well as with reading and general cognitive ability at age 10.


Although effect sizes are small, our results correspond with those of quantitative genetic research in supporting the Generalist Genes Hypothesis. SNP sets identified on the basis of their associations with mathematical ability at age 10 show associations with mathematical ability at earlier and later ages and show associations of similar magnitude with reading and general cognitive ability. With small effect sizes expected in such complex traits, future studies may be able to capitalise on power by searching for 'generalist genes' using longitudinal and multivariate approaches.