The Genetics of Learning

14 October 2018

Following the Psychology in Schools workshop this month, Dianne Newbury, Reader in medical genetics and genomics, Oxford Brookes University, writes about the focus of her workshop: The Genetics of Learning.

It was a bit of a new remit for me – talking to teachers and educational psychologists about the genetics of learning and language. I am a lecturer by day, so am used to talking to large groups ,and a researcher by night, so used to talking about genetics. But the shift in audience made me consider my research from a different perspective – what information is transferable to the classroom and what are the most important points that you, in this capacity, might need to know?

Our research is centered around identifying genetic factors that contribute to the risk of developmental speech and language disorders. I am particularly interested in how these disorders are connected to each other and related neurodevelopmental disorders (such as mental-health disorders) at the genetic level. All of these disorders have a high heritability. However, the underlying genetics are very complex; unlike a Mendelian genetic syndrome in which a single mutation is necessary and sufficient to cause disease, most neurodevelopmental disorders involve a complex mixing pot of many genetic factors, some risk and some protective. Together these determine your risk of disorder. But they only form part of the picture; the environment can also alter your risk. In a recent study, we found that social and behavioural factors can change the genetic risk of language disorder and mental health outcomes in children. So, I think my take-home message is a positive one – although the sequence of your genes is set from birth, the actions of those genes can be altered. Through targeted interventions, we can help “at-risk” children develop their full potential. As we start to understand more about the genetic factors that play a role in risk, we will be able to target these interventions more accurately.

Through recent research, we are now able to identify some subsets of children who have the same genetic reason for their disorder. Although we still have some way to go before we understand the links between genes and the outcomes, this at least provides parents and carers with a reason for their child’s difficulties and can help families form support networks.

For more information about some of these disorders and support networks, you can visit Unique –
You can read more about my research on my website –
Or follow me on Twitter – @diannenewbury 

Posted on 14 October 2018
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