Enrichment of genetic markers of recent human evolution in educational and cognitive traits.
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-30387-9
Higher cognitive functions are regarded as one of the main distinctive traits of humans. Evidence for the cognitive evolution of human beings is mainly based on fossil records of an expanding cranium and an increasing complexity of material culture artefacts. However, the molecular genetic factors involved in the evolution are still relatively unexplored. Here, we investigated whether genomic regions that underwent positive selection in humans after divergence from Neanderthals are enriched for genetic association with phenotypes related to cognitive functions. We used genome wide association data from a study of college completion (N = 111,114), one of educational attainment (N = 293,623) and two different studies of general cognitive ability (N = 269,867 and 53,949). We found nominally significant polygenic enrichment of associations with college completion (p = 0.025), educational attainment (p = 0.043) and general cognitive ability (p = 0.015 and 0.025, respectively), suggesting that variants influencing these phenotypes are more prevalent in evolutionarily salient regions. The enrichment remained significant after controlling for other known genetic enrichment factors, and for affiliation to genes highly expressed in the brain. These findings support the notion that phenotypes related to higher order cognitive skills typical of humans have a recent genetic component that originated after the separation of the human and Neanderthal lineages.