Human behavioural genetics of cognitive abilities and disabilities

Bioessays 19 (12):1117-1124 (1997)
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Abstract

Although neither the genome nor the environment can be manipulated in research on human behaviour, some of the new tools of molecular genetics can be brought to bear on human behavioural disorders (e.g. cognitive disabilities) and quantitative traits (e.g. cognitive abilities). The inability to manipulate the human genome experimentally has had the positive effect of focusing attention on naturally occuring genetic variation responsible for behavioural differences among individuals in all their complex multifactorial splendour. Genes in such complex multiple‐gene systems are called quantitative trait loci (QTLs), which merge the two worlds of genetic research, quantitative genetics and molecular genetics. Although most genetic research on complex human behaviour has focused on severe mental disorders, cognitive abilities and disabilities may be even more immediately relevant to neuroscience. For example, verbal ability and spatial ability are two of the most heritable cognitive abilities, and reading disability is the first behavioural disability for which replicated QTL linkage has been found. The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of the genetics of cognitive abilities and disabilities as an example of the impending merger of quantitative genetics and molecular genetics in QTL analysis of complex traits.

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