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Genetic (Polygenic) Risk for Psychiatric Disorders & Subject-Specific School Grades (2023 Study)

The intricate connection between mental health and educational attainment is a subject of growing interest and importance.

Recent studies have shed light on how genetic predispositions to certain mental disorders can influence academic performance, challenging our understanding of how mental health impacts learning.


  • Polygenic Risk Scores Reveal New Insights: Studies utilizing polygenic risk scores (PRS) for various mental disorders have shown differential associations with educational outcomes.
  • Mental Disorders & School Grades: Certain mental disorders are linked to specific academic strengths and weaknesses, with disorders like ADHD associated with lower grades, while others like anorexia nervosa correlate with higher grades.
  • Genetic Correlations & Educational Trajectories: Genetic predispositions to mental disorders can influence educational trajectories in complex ways, often different from the phenotypic associations of the disorders themselves.
  • Beyond Simple Correlations: The relationship between mental health and education is not straightforward, with factors like subject-specific skills, parental influence, and broader socio-economic factors playing significant roles.

Source: Biological Psychiatry (2023)

Polygenic Risk for Mental Disorders & Educational Performance (Overview)

Polygenic risk scores (PRS) for mental disorders quantify the aggregate genetic risk for developing these conditions.

These scores are derived from a multitude of genetic variants, each contributing a small effect to the overall risk.

The study of PRS in relation to educational attainment and grades in specific subjects stems from the understanding that the same genetic architectures influencing mental health may also affect cognitive and behavioral traits crucial for learning.

Potential Mechanisms

  • Cognitive Functioning: Many mental disorders are associated with variations in cognitive functioning, such as attention, memory, and executive functioning. For example, genetic factors contributing to ADHD might affect attention and impulse control, thereby impacting learning processes and academic performance in subjects that require sustained focus.
  • Emotional Regulation: Genetic predispositions to disorders like anxiety or depression might influence emotional regulation. This can impact a student’s ability to cope with academic stress, potentially affecting performance, especially in high-stakes testing environments.
  • Social Interaction & Communication: Disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often involve challenges in social interaction and communication. These difficulties can influence performance in group-based learning environments or subjects requiring strong verbal communication skills.
  • Motivation & Behavior: Genetic factors influencing conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can affect motivation and behavior. This might manifest in fluctuating academic performance due to the episodic nature of these conditions, affecting consistency in learning and achievement.

Interaction with Environmental Factors

It’s crucial to recognize that genetic risk does not operate in a vacuum.

Environmental factors, such as family background, educational resources, and socio-economic status, interact with genetic predispositions to influence educational outcomes.

For instance, a supportive educational environment might mitigate some of the negative impacts of high genetic risk for certain mental disorders.

Why Research Polygenic Risk for Mental Disorders & Educational Performance?

  • Enhancing Personalized Education: Understanding the relationship between polygenic risk for mental disorders and educational performance can lead to more personalized educational strategies. By recognizing the specific learning needs and challenges associated with different genetic predispositions, educators can tailor their teaching methods and interventions to better support each student.
  • Early Identification and Intervention: Research in this area can facilitate early identification of students who might be at risk of academic difficulties due to their genetic predispositions. This early recognition can lead to timely interventions, which are often more effective and can help in mitigating long-term educational challenges.
  • Informing Mental Health Services in Schools: Insights from such research can be crucial for developing comprehensive mental health services in educational settings. By understanding how genetic risks for mental disorders correlate with educational performance, schools can better address the mental health needs of their students, thereby improving both academic and psychological outcomes.
  • Advancing Understanding of Mental Disorders: Studying the link between polygenic risk for mental disorders and educational performance contributes to a broader understanding of these conditions. It extends the knowledge base beyond the clinical symptoms to how these disorders might manifest in everyday settings, such as schools.
  • Guiding Policy & Resource Allocation: This research can inform policy-making and resource allocation in education systems. Knowledge about how genetic risks for mental disorders impact learning can guide the development of policies and programs that allocate resources more effectively to support students with different educational needs.

Polygenic (Genetic) Risk for Mental Disorders & School Grades by Subject (2023 Study)

Jefsen et al. conducted a study to analyze the complex and nuanced relationship between genetic predispositions to mental disorders and educational outcomes.

Specifically, the study aimed to:

  • Investigate the associations between polygenic risk scores for six mental disorders (ADHD, AN, BD, MDD, SCZ, ASD) and detailed school outcomes, including grades in language and mathematics in ninth grade and high school, as well as overall educational attainment by age 25.
  • Explore how these genetic predispositions might differentially impact educational trajectories, offering new insights into the interplay between mental health and educational achievement.


The methodology employed in this study was comprehensive and multifaceted, involving several key steps:

  • Data: Utilizing data from established, nationwide cohorts, the study encompassed a sample size of 79,489 individuals.
  • Six Mental Disorders: The study specifically looked at ADHD, anorexia nervosa (AN), bipolar disorder (BD), major depressive disorder (MDD), schizophrenia (SCZ), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • Polygenic Risk Scores (PRS): PRSs for these six mental disorders were derived using a combination of externally and internally generated scores.
  • Educational Outcomes: The study examined school grades in language and mathematics in ninth grade and high school, along with educational attainment by age 25.


The study’s findings presented a complex picture of the relationship between mental health and education:

  • ADHD: High polygenic liability for ADHD was associated with lower grades in language and mathematics.
  • Anorexia Nervosa: Contrarily, a high polygenic risk of AN correlated with higher grades in both subjects.
  • Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia: Individuals with a high polygenic risk for BD and SCZ showed higher grades in language but a mixed pattern in mathematics.
  • Major Depressive Disorder: The results for MDD were mixed in terms of school grades.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: ASD showed a neutral effect on school grades.
  • Educational Attainment: The study also found associations between these mental disorders’ PRS and overall educational attainment by age 25.


The study, while comprehensive, had certain limitations that are important to consider:

  • Generalizability: The findings might not be fully generalizable beyond the Danish population and the Danish educational system.
  • Information Limitation: Not all individuals had taken ninth grade and high school examinations, and data on children attending private schools were not included.
  • Potential Bias: The study could be biased in associations between PRSs and subject-specific school grades due to the selective nature of the cohort.
  • Dynastic Effects: The study did not account for the potential influence of parental genotypes on educational outcomes (dynastic effects).
  • Small Effect Sizes: The effect sizes detected were relatively small, indicating that while the genetic associations are present, they are not overwhelmingly determinant of educational outcomes.
  • Cognitive Phenotyping: The study suggests a need for future research with more detailed cognitive phenotyping to understand the specific skills, traits, and behaviors underlying educational attainment.

Details of the Results: Polygenic Risk for Psychiatric Disorders & Subject-Specific Grades (2023)

The study’s findings provide a rich, detailed landscape of how genetic predispositions to various mental disorders intersect with educational outcomes.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

  • Lower Grades in Language and Mathematics: The study found a significant association between higher polygenic risk for ADHD and lower academic performance in both language and mathematics. This aligns with typical ADHD characteristics, such as difficulties with attention span, executive functioning, and impulse control, which can hinder learning and academic performance.
  • Implications: These findings suggest that students at higher genetic risk for ADHD might benefit from specialized educational strategies that address these specific challenges, such as structured learning environments and personalized attention.

Anorexia Nervosa (AN)

  • Higher Grades in Both Subjects: In contrast to other mental disorders, a higher polygenic risk for anorexia nervosa correlated with better grades in language and mathematics. This result is intriguing as it suggests that certain traits associated with AN, like high levels of self-discipline and perfectionism, might confer an advantage in academic settings.
  • Considerations: While on the surface this may seem beneficial, it raises important questions about the balance between academic success and mental well-being, highlighting the need for holistic approaches to education that prioritize mental health alongside academic achievement.

Bipolar Disorder (BD) & Schizophrenia (SCZ)

  • Mixed Patterns in Academic Performance: The study noted that higher polygenic risks for both BD and SCZ were associated with higher language grades, but the results were more mixed for mathematics. This suggests that while these disorders may be linked with certain cognitive strengths (e.g., verbal and creative skills), they may also entail specific academic challenges.
  • Educational Strategy Implications: These findings underline the importance of tailored educational approaches that leverage strengths while supporting areas of challenge for students with higher genetic risks for these disorders.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

  • Mixed Results in School Grades: For MDD, the association with school grades was mixed, indicating a more complex relationship between depressive symptoms and academic performance. This could reflect the varying impact of mood on different cognitive domains.
  • Support Systems: The results suggest the need for robust support systems in educational settings for students who may be at higher genetic risk for depression, including mental health services and accommodations to support their learning needs.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

  • Neutral Effect on Grades: The study interestingly found a neutral effect of ASD on school grades, which challenges some common perceptions about the disorder’s impact on academic ability. This finding suggests that while individuals with ASD may face unique learning challenges, they do not universally translate into poorer academic performance.
  • Educational Implications: This result emphasizes the importance of individualized educational plans that are tailored to the unique strengths and needs of students on the autism spectrum, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Educational Attainment by Age 25

  • Long-Term Educational Trajectories: The study also explored how these genetic predispositions influenced overall educational attainment by the age of 25. It found that higher polygenic risks for ADHD, ASD, BD, and SCZ were associated with lower educational attainment, whereas higher polygenic risk for AN was associated with higher educational attainment.
  • Socio-Economic Factors & Support Needs: These findings underscore the long-term impact of mental health on educational pathways and highlight the need for ongoing support and resources for individuals at higher genetic risk for these disorders, especially in the critical years of early adulthood when higher education and career paths are often solidified.

What are the potential implications of this study? (Genetics, Psychiatric Disorders, Education)

Educational Strategies

The study’s findings have significant implications for educational strategies and policies.

Understanding the unique challenges and strengths associated with different genetic predispositions can guide the development of more tailored educational approaches.

For instance, students with a higher genetic risk for ADHD might benefit from more structured and supportive learning environments, while those with traits associated with anorexia nervosa might need interventions to balance academic diligence with mental well-being.

Mental Health Services in Schools

The study underscores the importance of integrating mental health services within educational settings.

Schools and educational institutions could use these insights to provide targeted support and resources for students at higher genetic risk for certain mental disorders, aiding both in their academic performance and overall mental health.

Early Intervention & Support

Identifying students who may be at higher genetic risk for certain mental disorders can lead to earlier interventions and support, potentially mitigating some of the educational impacts of these conditions.

This proactive approach could be crucial in fostering an educational environment that supports all students, regardless of their mental health challenges.

Clinical Practice

The study could also influence future research and clinical practice by highlighting the need to consider both genetic predispositions and the actual symptoms of mental disorders when assessing and treating individuals.

This could lead to more holistic and effective treatment plans that address both the genetic and phenotypic aspects of mental health conditions.

Genetics, Mental Disorders, Educational Outcomes (Relationships)

Genetics & Educational Outcomes

The genetic correlations found in the study suggest that the same genetic factors that increase the risk for certain mental disorders might also influence specific cognitive and behavioral traits related to learning.

For example, the genetic factors associated with ADHD, which impact attention and executive functioning, could explain lower academic performance in subjects requiring sustained concentration like mathematics and language.

Manifestations of Mental Disorders in Educational Settings

The symptoms and characteristics of these mental disorders themselves can directly impact educational performance.

For instance, the perfectionistic and disciplined traits often associated with anorexia nervosa might lead to higher academic achievement, while the mood fluctuations in bipolar disorder and cognitive challenges in schizophrenia could result in mixed academic performance.

The Interplay of Genetics & Phenotypes

The relationship between the genetics of these mental disorders and their phenotypic manifestations provides a complex framework for understanding educational outcomes.

Genetic predispositions do not act in isolation but interact with environmental, social, and personal factors to influence educational trajectories.

Takeaways: Polygenic Risk for Mental Disorders & Educational Performance

This study provides groundbreaking insights into the complex interplay between genetic predispositions to mental disorders and educational outcomes.

The findings have far-reaching implications for educational strategies, mental health services in schools, and early intervention programs.

They highlight the necessity of a nuanced approach that considers both the genetic and symptomatic aspects of mental health in educational settings.

The study underscores the importance of tailored educational support and the integration of mental health services to ensure that all students, regardless of their mental health challenges, have the opportunity to succeed academically.

Furthermore, it encourages a deeper understanding of how genetics and the manifestations of mental disorders combine to shape educational trajectories, paving the way for more effective and personalized educational and mental health interventions.


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