Success in Second Language Learning Linked to Genetic and Brain Measures

A new I-LABS study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates a relationship between genes, the brain and human learning.

      Photo credit: University of Washington.

The study, published the week of June 13, 2016, shows that the final grades that college students received in a second-language class were predicted by a combination of genetic and brain factors.

Variations in the gene COMT along with measures of the strength of the brain's communications network—known as "white matter"—jointly accounted for a high percentage of the variance in the students' learning.

"Our study shows for the first time that variations of the COMT gene are related to changes in the brain's white matter that are the result of learning," said lead author Ping Mamiya, a research scientist at I-LABS.

The study helps explain why individuals learn differently.

"Humans' abilities in learning any particular skill vary tremendously, and we want to know why," said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS. "Knowing why answers a basic science question about how the environment, our genes, and our brains really work, but could also lead to interventions that improve learning."

Other co-authors of the study are Todd Richards of I-LABS and the UW Department of Radiology, and Bradley Coe and Evan Eichler of the UW Department of Genome Sciences. The National Science Foundation's UW Life Center and the Ready Mind Project at I-LABS funded the study.

Read the university news release »
Read the research paper »

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