Science Superheroes Investigate Genetic Links to Dyslexia

composite photo showing a DNA sequence printed on paper with a 3D image of a helix superimposed on top of it. Science superheroes are investigating links between genes and learning ability.

What are science superheroes? Well, when I was a starry-eyed kid dreaming of superheroes, I was spellbound at their ability to get the tough stuff done and get it done with style—even with wow factor. They were so unlike me. Trust me—if I wasn’t the last word in the antithesis of a superhero, then I really, really, really didn’t want to know what the last word was. Today, as an adult, I was amazed to read about what some researchers—aka science superheroes—have recently learned about genetics and learning.

As a dyslexic child in the 1960s, there wasn’t a lot of support or understanding for me or other struggling readers. When it came to picking up a book, reading, doing writing assignments, or math, things were about as un-super as could be. It seemed like there was no escaping from that unspectacular existence.

So I was encouraged today when I came across some new research being done across the pond by the good folks at the University of Oxford and King’s College London. These science superheroes are analyzing DNA to determine how genes influence learning ability in both reading and math. Their findings showed a number of areas of genetic overlap in variants that affect both skills.

It might seem overwhelming to think that we who have dyslexia or those who are parents of struggling readers not only have to deal with the stigma of a label or two (ADD, ADHD, dyslexic, learning disabled, etc.) but also have our own genes stacked against us. But the information in the article wasn’t negative in the least: rather, it held out hope.

Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College states, “Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences. Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult — heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”

In other words, what nature has dealt, nurture can help conquer.

Dr Oliver Davis (UCL Genetics), said: “We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA. Both analyses show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths. However, it’s also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It’s this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are.” (Italics added).

Takeaway: no matter what the gene, label, or diagnosis, we can all discover ways to thrive and reach our potential. How worthwhile it is for parents and teachers to demonstrate love, compassion, and patience as we support and encourage the next generation of young superheroes!

A small plant sprouts in a small pile of dirt held in a woman's hands.

For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Don M. Winn Amazon author page for more information.