The developmental origins of genetic factors influencing language and literacy: Associations with early-childhood vocabulary

Verhoef, E., Shapland, C. Y., Fisher, S. E., Dale, P. S., & St Pourcain, B. (2021). The developmental origins of genetic factors influencing language and literacy: Associations with early-childhood vocabulary. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 62(6), 728-738. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13327.

The heritability of language and literacy skills increases from early‐childhood to adolescence. The underlying mechanisms are little understood and may involve (a) the amplification of genetic influences contributing to early language abilities, and/or (b) the emergence of novel genetic factors (innovation). Here, we investigate the developmental origins of genetic factors influencing mid‐childhood/early‐adolescent language and literacy. We evaluate evidence for the amplification of early‐childhood genetic factors for vocabulary, in addition to genetic innovation processes.

Expressive and receptive vocabulary scores at 38 months, thirteen language‐ and literacy‐related abilities and nonverbal cognition (7–13 years) were assessed in unrelated children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC, Nindividuals ≤ 6,092). We investigated the multivariate genetic architecture underlying early‐childhood expressive and receptive vocabulary, and each of 14 mid‐childhood/early‐adolescent language, literacy or cognitive skills with trivariate structural equation (Cholesky) models as captured by genome‐wide genetic relationship matrices. The individual path coefficients of the resulting structural models were finally meta‐analysed to evaluate evidence for overarching patterns.

We observed little support for the emergence of novel genetic sources for language, literacy or cognitive abilities during mid‐childhood or early adolescence. Instead, genetic factors of early‐childhood vocabulary, especially those unique to receptive skills, were amplified and represented the majority of genetic variance underlying many of these later complex skills (≤99%). The most predictive early genetic factor accounted for 29.4%(SE = 12.9%) to 45.1%(SE = 7.6%) of the phenotypic variation in verbal intelligence and literacy skills, but also for 25.7%(SE = 6.4%) in performance intelligence, while explaining only a fraction of the phenotypic variation in receptive vocabulary (3.9%(SE = 1.8%)).

Genetic factors contributing to many complex skills during mid‐childhood and early adolescence, including literacy, verbal cognition and nonverbal cognition, originate developmentally in early‐childhood and are captured by receptive vocabulary. This suggests developmental genetic stability and overarching aetiological mechanisms.
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