Two times two equals five. Some of the genetics behind mathematical capability

Two times two equals five. Some of the genetics behind mathematical capability

Last Updated on December 17, 2020 by Joseph Gut – thasso

November 19, 2020 – Does genetic variation gives rise to differences in mathematical ability? Based on the observation that certain individuals can solve a simple mental arithmetic, such as the square root of nine, in a split second while other individuals need days to do so, one could assume that certain genes for these interindividual differences in mathematical ability could be involved.


How, then, could genetic variation give rise to inter interindividual differences in mathematical ability? DNA variation in a gene called ROBO1 is associated with early anatomical differences in a brain region that plays a key role in quantity representation, potentially explaining how genetic variability might shape mathematical performance in children, according to a study published October 22nd in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Michael Skeide of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, and colleagues.

The ROBO1 gene codes for the roundabout homolog 1 protein which an earlier study has been implicated in communication disorder based on a Finnish pedigree with severe dyslexia. Analyses revealed a translocation had occurred disrupting ROBO1Study of the phonological memory component of the language acquisition system suggests that ROBO1 polymorphisms are associated with functioning in this system.that in humans is encoded by the ROBO1 gene.

In the present study on mathematical ability, the authors specifically found that genetic variants of ROBO1 in young children are associated with grey matter volume in the right parietal cortex, which in turn predicts mathematical test scores in second grade. Mathematical ability is known to be heritable and related to several genes that play a role for brain development. But it has not been clear how mathematical ability related genes might sculpt the developing human brain. As a result, it is an open question how genetic variation could give rise to differences in mathematical ability. To address this gap in knowledge, Skeide and his collaborators combined genotyping with brain imaging in unschooled children without mathematical training.

The authors analyzed 18 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), i.e., genetic variants affecting a single DNA building block, in 10 genes previously implicated in mathematical performance. They then examined the relationship between these variants and the volume of grey matter (which mainly consists of nerve cell bodies), across the whole brain in a total of 178 three- to six-year-old children who underwent magnetic resonance imaging. Finally, they identified brain regions whose grey matter volumes could predict math test scores in second grade.

Overall, they found that variants in ROBO1, a gene that regulates prenatal growth of the outermost layer of neural tissue in the brain, are associated with the grey matter volume in the right parietal cortex, a key brain region for quantity representation. Moreover, grey matter volume within these regions predicted the children’s math test scores at seven to nine years of age. According to the authors, the results suggest that genetic variability might shape mathematical ability by influencing the early development of the brain’s basic quantity processing system.

See here a short sequence on how mathematical ability may be more complex than genetics:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Ph.D.; Professor in Pharmacology and Toxicology. Senior expert in theragenomic and personalized medicine and individualized drug safety. Senior expert in pharmaco- and toxicogenetics. Senior expert in human safety of drugs, chemicals, environmental pollutants, and dietary ingredients.