Chinese project probes the genetics of genius: bid to unravel the secrets of brainpower faces scepticism
The US adolescents who signed up for the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) in the 1970s were the smartest of the smart, with mathematical and verbal-reasoning skills within the top 1% of the population. Now, researchers at BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, the largest gene-sequencing facility in the world, are searching for the quirks of DNA that may contribute to such gifts. Plunging into an area that is littered with failures and riven with controversy, the researchers are scouring the genomes of 1,600 of these high-fliers in an ambitious project to find the first common genetic variants associated with human intelligence.
The project, which was launched in August 2012 and is slated to begin data analysis in the next few months, has spawned wild accusations of eugenics plots, as well as more measured objections by social scientists who view such research as a distraction from pressing societal issues. Some geneticists, however, take issue with the study for a different reason. They say that it is highly unlikely to find anything of interest--because the sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex.
Earlier large studies with the same goal have failed. But scientists from BGI's Cognitive Genomics group hope that their super-smart sample will give them an edge, because it should be enriched with bits of DNA that confer effects on intelligence. "An exceptional person gets you an order of magnitude more statistical power than if you took random people from the population--I'd say we have a fighting chance," says Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University in East Lansing, who acts as a scientific adviser to BGI and is one of the project's leaders.
"If they think they're likely to get much useful data out of this study, they're almost certainly wrong," says Daniel MacArthur, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is not against intelligence studies in principle, despite the visceral reactions they provoke in some people. "Studying intelligence is useful for understanding cognitive function, or diseases" that affect it, he says. But he questions whether the study will work.
Intelligence has a substantial but mysterious genetic component (1). Studies in twins indicate that genetic factors should explain significantly more than half of the variation in...
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