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The interplay of Genes and Environment in Learning among Children: Genetics and Epigenetics

Sandhya Basu


From our previous blogs, we have known that learning is a complex mechanism that involves many cognitive skills like attention and memory. We have also seen that learning takes place throughout our lives due to our brain’s ability to form new connections. Even though our brain is created under the heavy influence of genetic programs, it continues to develop new connections through our life span—known as neuroplasticity. This forms the most basic or the cellular form of learning. The psychological perspective suggests that learning occurs through various cognitive functions such as intelligence, memory, attention, etc., which depend on the brain's neuronal connectivity and function, which is heavily under genetic control.



Just like some people have brown eyes while others have black or some are taller than the others, individual differences in the psychological traits (related to cognition and learning) are also under genetic influence. For instance, we have 709 genes responsible for our cognitive functions.


However, recent advancements in science suggest that our genes and environment, together, shape the course of human development. Research says that experiences, early in life, can determine the ‘on’ and ‘off’ of genetic effects on our cognition, clearing off the misconception that genes are ‘set in stone.’ The reality is that our organs' healthy development, including the brain, depends on the activation of specific genes (and their quantity—how many of them) when we perform certain tasks. Thus, children’s early year's life experiences play a significant role in shaping their brain architecture. In our previous blogs, we have seen the role of the learning environment, caregiver’s love and support, and importance of food habits, creativity, and play in enhancing cognition in children. In this blog, we will be looking at how our genes interact with our environment to promote children’s cognition, especially learning.


Let us start from the very beginning!


Our bodies are made up of cells, and every cell has a nucleus. Inside each nucleus, we have chromosomes containing the heritability code—characteristics inherited through the generations. Our genetic code or genes that make up our DNA are found within these chromosomes.


Any individual inherits around 23000 genes from the parents. The interesting thing to note is that not every gene performs what it is designed to perform! It is the plethora of experiences that decide which gene will perform and by how much by leaving their ‘chemical signature’ on the genes. These signatures are known as the epigenome. It is like every gene has the potential to perform its expected function, but it is the environment that controls which genes can perform and how much they can perform.

Most of us know that the brain is highly responsive to the external environment during the early stages of human development. For example, women after conception are asked not to take stress, participate in healthy conversations, watch feel-good television, and read happy books. Environment, in the form of external experiences, enable neurons (brain cells) to connect with other neurons and produce proteins. These proteins are called ‘gene-regulatory proteins’ and are responsible for the further process of gene encoding. The catch is that positive or feel-good experiences like rich learning environments and opportunities can change this chemistry of genetic encoding—a process known as an epigenetic modification. Thus, the essence is that both environment and genes are responsible for developing cognition in children.


One may not control the gene transfer from one generation to another, but one can definitely control the environment to promote healthy development (especially brain development) in children. For instance, the educational environment significantly affects most children’s capabilities, especially in the intellectual and emotional domains. Our brain is malleable, and hence can be shaped with the help of our learning experiences. However, we must also keep in mind the moderate to a high degree of genetic influence in shaping our cognitive functions. The combined knowledge of the genetic and the environmental influences on the child’s cognitive functions, and most importantly, learning, empowers our Brighter Minds training program to work towards the most appropriate cognitive training.


We now know that genes and environment combined affect our learning skills. But are there any specific effect of genes or environment on learning? Yes!

Let us now look at these specific effects.

  1. Ways in which genes influence learning:


  1. it lays the foundation of an individual’s intellectual capacity. Individuals inherit different types of intelligence from their parents that determine their future learning outcomes. For example, analytical, creative, and practical intelligence.

  2. it determines an individual’s maturation period. That is when the child will walk, run, or start to speak. These exert an influence on learning as well.

  3. it determines an individual’s temperaments right from birth, like adaptability or irritability, etc.


Ways in which the environment influences learning:


  1. even though genes set the intellectual capacity limit, the environment determines how much the individual’s potential for intellectual capacity can be realized.

  2. it can determine intelligence. For example, a study found that children raised in a typical environment have better intelligence scores and cognitive gains than the children raised in a poverty-stricken environment.

  3. it determines learning outcomes through nutrition-intake. For instance, lack of vitamin A may lead to minimizing learning outcomes

  4. it affects and alters the IQ of individuals. If taken care of in a nurturing environment, a child can increase his or her IQ levels by 15 points!


These findings show that caregivers can influence their children’s learning outcomes by providing nutritious food, enabling them to think out of the box for their academic projects, building a conducive and rich learning environment, and by understanding the genetic role in their children’s learning by referring to the family history and achievements. Cognitive training is another way to impact learning and well being.



References

  1. Barsky, P., & Gaysina, D. (2016). Gene-Environment Interplay and Individual Differences in Psychological Traits. In Behavioural Genetics for Education (pp. 24-41). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

  2. Benson, J. B. (2020). Encyclopedia of infant and early childhood development. Elsevier.

  3. Boyce, W. T., Sokolowski, M. B., & Robinson, G. E. (2020). Genes and environments, development and time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(38), 23235-23241.

  4. Bueno, D. (2019). Genetics and learning: How the genes influence educational attainment. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1622.

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