Gene for Intelligence Revealed by Studying Williams Syndrome

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Variations in a single gene may give us a big boost in potential intelligence.

Want to make yourself smarter? It may all start with finding which genes are responsible for intelligence. Researchers led by scientists at the University of Utah’s Brain Institute have discovered that a single gene (STX1A) may account for more than 15% of the variation in IQ among those people with Willliams Syndrome. WS is a developmental disorder that arises when someone is missing 26 genes from their seventh chromosome. Those with WS often have problems with visual and spatial reasoning but are proficient in verbal and musical expression. Scientists hope that the strong correlation between STX1A and intelligence may provide insight into the general population as well. If it does, the gene may give us the means to predict, analyze, and even enhance your IQ.

Intelligence is a complex property that can be difficult to measure, and it’s likely that the inheritable component of intelligence involves many genes interacting with one another. There’s not going to be one single “smart gene” that determines if you’re smart or not, but individual genes may act to give a boost to your intelligence potential. We’ve seen how a single gene variation in rats lead to noticeable improvements in memory and cognition. The University of Utah work (performed in collaboration with UCLA, Cedars-Sinai, and the Salk Institute) is exciting because it shows a similar single gene is found in humans. Once the STX1A-IQ correlation is fully understood, it could lead to gene (or protein) therapies that give anyone without the “smarter” variation a boost in intelligence. We’re talking about the possibility of a real nootropic therapy that could affect a huge portion of the population. That’s exciting stuff.

Of course, it’s hard to know how well the STX1A will hold up for the rest of the world. Those with Williams Syndrome have an average IQ near 60, not 100. That IQ is also complicated by the varying effects of WS on neurological development. Many people with WS are chatty, verbose people who enjoy social interactions and often have an ear for music. At the same time, complex spatial recognition concepts and verbal-physical correlations are typically difficult to master. (These are both broad generalizations, obviously) As the UoU team describes in the associated publication in PLoS ONE, special care had to be employed to adjust the standard WAIS-IQ test using a technique known as principal component analysis. In short, while studying a WS population was helpful in finding the STX1A gene’s importance, it makes generalizing the results difficult.

Yet we all have the STX1A gene, and there’s no doubt it plays an important role in everyone’s brain. The gene codes for proteins that regulate the availability of neurotransmitters in our nerve cells. Even if the STX1A-IQ correlation is smaller among the general population than among the WS group, it is very likely to exist on some level.

This research was only published very recently, so it’s unclear how the team will proceed next. The WS population studied was a good size for a preliminary test (65 patients) but we obviously need to look at larger sample sets here. Now that the STX1A gene and its important variations have been identified, it may be possible to leverage some of the large stores of medical and genetic information that are being built up around the world. Certainly, the ever dropping price of DNA sequencing gives hope that a larger study of the gene could be explored very soon. Eventually, scientists should be able to determine the intellectual effect of a good portion of our genome. One day we may be able to tell the potential IQ of a person with relative certainty even before they are born. By that time, though, collective knowledge and information sharing may make someone’s individual IQ less important (problem solving wise) than their internet connectivity. Even if that happens I’ll probably still want to find a way to boost my intelligence – after all, smart is the new sexy.

[image credit: CBS News]
[source: UoU Brain Institute News, PLoS ONE]