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Keywords:

  • Mathematical disability;
  • reading disability;
  • twin method;
  • genetic correlation;
  • etiology;
  • behavioral genetics;
  • child development;
  • comorbidity;
  • learning difficulties

Background:  To what extent do genetic and environmental influences on reading disability overlap with those on mathematics disability? Multivariate genetic research on the normal range of variation in unselected samples has led to a Generalist Genes Hypothesis which posits that the same genes largely affect individual differences in these abilities in the normal range. However, little is known about the etiology of co-morbidity for the disability extremes of reading and mathematics.

Method:  From 2596 pairs of 10-year-old monozygotic and dizygotic twins assessed on a web-based battery of reading and mathematics tests, we selected the lowest 15% on reading and on mathematics. We conducted bivariate DeFries–Fulker (DF) extremes analyses to assess overlap and specificity of genetic and environmental influences on reading and mathematics disability defined by a 15% cut-off.

Results:  Both reading and mathematics disability are moderately heritable (47% and 43%, respectively) and show only modest shared environmental influence (16% and 20%). There is substantial phenotypic co-morbidity between reading and mathematics disability. Bivariate DF extremes analyses yielded a genetic correlation of .67 between reading disability and mathematics disability, suggesting that they are affected largely by the same genetic factors. The shared environmental correlation is .96 and the non-shared environmental correlation is .08.

Conclusions:  In line with the Generalist Genes Hypothesis, the same set of generalist genes largely affects mathematical and reading disabilities. The dissociation between the disabilities occurs largely due to independent non-shared environmental influences.