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Cognitive and brain development is independently influenced by socioeconomic status and polygenic scores for educational attainment

N. Judd, B. Sauce, J. Wiedenhoeft, J. Tromp, B. Chaarani, A. Schliep, B. van Noort, J. Penttilä, Y. Grimmer, C. Insensee, A. Becker, T. Banaschewski, A.L.W. Bokde, E.B. Quinlan, S. Desrivières, H. Flor, A. Grigis, P. Gowland, A. Heinz, B. Ittermann, J. Martinot, M. Paillère Martinot, E. Artiges, F. Nees, D. Papadopoulos Orfanos, T. Paus, L. Poustka, S. Hohmann, S. Millenet, J.H. Fröhner, M.N. Smolka, H. Walter, R. Whelan, G. Schumann, H. Garavan and T. Klingberg

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2020, 117:22, 12411–12418.

he influence of socioeconomic status (SES) inequalities on brain and cognitive development is a hotly debated topic. However, previous studies have not considered that genetic factors overlap with SES. Here we show that SES and EduYears-PGS (a score from thousands of genetic markers for educational attainment) have independent associations with both cognition and global cortical surface area in adolescents. EduYears-PGS also had a localized association in the brain: the intraparietal sulcus, a region related to nonverbal intelligence. In contrast, SES had global, but not regional, associations, and these persisted throughout adolescence. This suggests that the influence of SES inequalities is widespread{\textemdash}a result that opposes the current paradigm and can help inform policies in education.Genetic factors and socioeconomic status (SES) inequalities play a large role in educational attainment, and both have been associated with variations in brain structure and cognition. However, genetics and SES are correlated, and no prior study has assessed their neural associations independently. Here we used a polygenic score for educational attainment (EduYears-PGS), as well as SES, in a longitudinal study of 551 adolescents to tease apart genetic and environmental associations with brain development and cognition. Subjects received a structural MRI scan at ages 14 and 19. At both time points, they performed three working memory (WM) tasks. SES and EduYears-PGS were correlated (r = 0.27) and had both common and independent associations with brain structure and cognition. Specifically, lower SES was related to less total cortical surface area and lower WM. EduYears-PGS was also related to total cortical surface area, but in addition had a regional association with surface area in the right parietal lobe, a region related to nonverbal cognitive functions, including mathematics, spatial cognition, and WM. SES, but not EduYears-PGS, was related to a change in total cortical surface area from age 14 to 19. This study demonstrates a regional association of EduYears-PGS and the independent prediction of SES with cognitive function and brain development. It suggests that the SES inequalities, in particular parental education, are related to global aspects of cortical development, and exert a persistent influence on brain development during adolescence.