IQ inheritance: By comparing the brain scans of twins, scientists discovered that the quality of the fatty tissue that insulates neural wires is largely inherited. The parietal lobe, which is involved in logic and mathematics, is 85 percent genetically determined, whereas the visual cortex is about 76 percent, and the temporal lobe, which is involved in learning and memory, is only 45 percent genetically determined.
If white matter is linked to both processing speed and IQ, this raises the question: is intelligence merely a function of how fast your brain works? Previous research has linked processing speed to IQ, but the tests used in the study are measures of general intelligence, including verbal skills, math, and logic. “Processing speed plays a big part in how intelligent you are, but it’s not the only factor,” says Shaw.
The new study is among the first to link a specific neural architecture to IQ in healthy individuals. “Most people have focused on grey matter,” says Shaw. “This is good evidence we should be looking at white matter as well.” Previous studies using DTI have linked white matter damage to Alzheimer’s disease, chronic alcoholism, and traumatic brain injury.
The UCLA researchers took the study a step further by comparing the white matter architecture of identical twins, who share almost all their DNA, and fraternal twins, who share only half. Results showed that the quality of the white matter is highly genetically determined, although the influence of genetics varies by brain area. According to the findings, about 85 percent of the variation in white matter in the parietal lobe, which is involved in mathematics, logic, and visual-spatial skills, can be attributed to genetics. But only about 45 percent of the variation in the temporal lobe, which plays a central role in learning and memory, appears to be inherited.
Thompson and his collaborators also analyzed the twins’ DNA, and they are now looking for specific genetic variations that are linked to the quality of the brain’s white matter. The researchers have already found a candidate–the gene for a protein called BDNF, which promotes cell growth. “People with one variation have more intact fibers,” says Thompson.
The search for the genetic and neuroanatomical basis of intelligence has been controversial, largely because opponents fear it will spawn a deterministic view of abilities and education. “People worry that if something is genetic, they have no power to influence it,” says Thompson. “But that’s not true at all.” For example, both an average runner and a genetically gifted one can benefit from training.
But the debate may be moot since, as Wedeen points out, it is unlikely that an individual brain scan could predict a person’s IQ. “The report described aggregate data over number of individuals,” he says. “That’s not the same as saying we can do a scan and determine a person’s intelligence. That may be in the offing, but we don’t know that yet.”