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Intelligence - Family, Twin, And Adoption Studies

age developmental differences genetic genetic heritability cognitive abilities

Genetic studies have traditionally used models that evaluate how much of the variability in IQ is due to genes and how much is associated with environment. These studies include family studies, twin studies, and adoption studies.

General cognitive ability runs in families. For first-degree relatives (parents, children, brothers, sisters) living together, correlations of "g" for over 8,000 parent-offspring pairs averaged 0.43 (0.0 is no correlation, 1.0 is complete correlation). For more than 25,000 sibling pairs, "g" correlations averaged 0.47. Heritability estimates range from 40 to 80 percent, meaning that 40 to 80 percent of "g" is due to genes.

In twin studies of over 10,000 pairs of twins, monozygotic (genetically identical) twins averaged an 0.85 correlation of "g," whereas for dizygotic (fraternal, like brothers or sisters) same-sex twins the "g" correlations were 0.60. These twin studies suggest that the heritability (genetic effect) accounts for about half of the variance in "g" scores.

Adoption studies also provide evidence for substantial heritability of "g." The "g" estimate for identical twins raised apart is similar to that of identical twins raised together, proving that for genetically identical individuals, environmental differences did not affect "g." The Colorado Adoption Study (CAP) of first-degree relatives who were adopted also indicated significant heritability of "g." Thus, classical genetic studies indicate that there is a statistically significant and substantial genetic influence on "g."

Newer genetic research on general cognitive ability has focused on developmental changes in IQ, multivariate relations (contributions of multiple factors) among cognitive abilities, and specific genes responsible for the heritability of "g." Developmental changes over time were first studied by Galton in 1876. The CAP study was conducted over twenty-five years and evaluated 245 children who had been separated from their parents at birth and adopted by one month of age. This study, and others, showed that the variance in "g" due to environment for an adopted child in his or her adoptive family is largely unconnected with the shared adoptive family upbringing, that is, a shared parent-sibling environment. For adoptive parents and their adopted children, the parent-offspring correlations for heritability were around zero. For adopted children and their biologic mothers or for children raised with their biologic parents, heritability was the same, increasing with age.

Recent studies indicate that heritability increases over time, with infant measures of about 20 percent, childhood measures at 40 percent, and adult measures reaching 60 percent. Why is there an age effect for the heritability of "g"? Part of this could be due to different genes being expressed over time, as the brain develops. The stability of the heritability measure correlates with changes in brain development, with "maturity" of brain structure achieved after adolescence. Also, it is likely that small gene effects early in life become larger as children and adolescents select or create environments that foster their strengths.

Multivariate relations among cognitive abilities affect more than general cognitive ability as measured by "g." Current models of cognitive abilities include specific components such as spatial and verbal abilities, speed of processing, and memory abilities. Less is known about the heritabilities of these specific cognitive skills. They also show substantial genetic influence, although this influence is less than what has been found for "g." Multivariate genetic analyses indicate that the same genetic factors influence different abilities. In other words, a specific gene found to be associated with verbal ability may also be associated with spatial ability and other specific cognitive abilities. Four studies have shown that genetic effects on measures of school achievement are highly correlated with genetic effects on "g." Also, discrepancies between school achievement and "g," as occurs with under-achievers, are predominantly of environmental origin.

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