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A Polygenic Score for Higher Educational Attainment is Associated with Larger Brains

By Maxwell L Elliott, DW Belsky, Kevin Anderson, David L Corcoran, Tian Ge, Annchen Knodt, Joseph A Prinz, Karen Sugden, Benjamin Williams, David Ireland, Richie Poulton, Avshalom Caspi, Avram Holmes, Terrie Moffitt, Ahmad R Hariri

Posted 23 Mar 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/287490 (published DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhy219)

People who score higher on intelligence tests tend to have larger brains. Twin studies suggest the same genetic factors influence both brain size and intelligence. This has led to the hypothesis that genetics influence intelligence partly by contributing to development of larger brains. We tested this hypothesis with molecular genetic data using discoveries from a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of educational attainment, a correlate of intelligence. We analyzed genetic, brain imaging, and cognitive test data from the UK Biobank, the Dunedin Study, the Brain Genomics Superstruct Project (GSP), and the Duke Neurogenetics Study (DNS) (combined N=8,271). We measured genetics using polygenic scores based on published GWAS. We conducted meta-analysis to test associations among participants' genetics, total brain volume (i.e., brain size), and cognitive test performance. Consistent with previous findings, participants with higher polygenic scores achieved higher scores on cognitive tests, as did participants with larger brains. Participants with higher polygenic scores also had larger brains. We found some evidence that brain size partly mediated associations between participants' education polygenic scores and their cognitive test performance. Effect-sizes were larger in the population-based UK Biobank and Dunedin samples than in the GSP and DNS samples. Sensitivity analysis suggested this effect-size difference partly reflected restricted range of cognitive performance in the GSP and DNS samples. Recruitment and retention of population-representative samples should be a priority for neuroscience research. Findings suggest promise for studies integrating GWAS discoveries with brain imaging data to understand neurobiology linking genetics with individual differences in cognitive performance.

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