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The amplification of genetic factors for early vocabulary during children's language and literacy development

By Ellen Verhoef, Chin Yang Shapland, SE Fisher, Philip S. Dale, Beate Pourcain

Posted 03 Dec 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/863118 (published DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13327)

The heritability of language and literacy skills increases during development. The underlying mechanisms are little understood, and may involve (i) the amplification of early genetic influences and/or (ii) the emergence of novel genetic factors (innovation). Here, we use multivariate structural equation models to quantify these processes, as captured by genome-wide genetic markers. Studying expressive and receptive vocabulary at 38 months and subsequent language, literacy and cognitive skills (7-13 years) in unrelated children (ALSPAC: N≤6,092), we found little support for genetic innovation during mid-childhood and adolescence. Instead, genetic factors for early vocabulary, especially those unique to receptive skills, were amplified. Explaining as little as 3.9%(SE=1.8%) variation in early language, the same genetic influences accounted for 25.7%(SE=6.4%) to 45.1%(SE=7.6%) variation in verbal intelligence and literacy skills, but also performance intelligence, capturing the majority of SNP-heritability (≤99%). This suggests that complex verbal and non-verbal cognitive skills originate developmentaly in early receptive language.

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