Saturday, December 04, 2010

Supercomputers and the mystery of IQ

This article appeared today in the South China Morning Post, one of the leading newspapers in HK. I fixed a couple of typos in what appears below, but can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the entire article ;-)

Scientists seek to unravel the mystery of IQ: Hong Kong supercomputers will power unique genetic study of students

Fiona Tam
Updated on Dec 04, 2010

Some of the world's fastest supercomputers are being set up in Hong Kong to address the age-old mystery of human intelligence.

The study of intelligence quotient (IQ) is being conducted by BGI Hong Kong, [formerly] known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. It will survey DNA samples from 1,000 child prodigies from China's best high schools, comparing them with samples from 1,000 children of average intelligence, searching for genetic variations.

The study will examine protein coding genes of the extremely smart children, many of whom are expected to enroll at Harvard, Yale or Cambridge. The results will be correlated with each youngster's school test scores, in hopes of learning how specific genetic variations affect intelligence.

The study, which started in 2009 in Shenzhen, is moving to a new facility in Tai Po. By the end of this month, 115 of the world's fastest sequencers - the HiSeq 2000 - will have relocated to the city. They will be able to sequence the equivalent of 1,000 human genomes a day, and soon surpass the entire sequencing output of the United States to become the world's largest sequencing centre.

The study by BGI, which receives strong financial backing from the Shenzhen and mainland governments, will be the largest-scale examination of its kind. Ethical and privacy concerns have hindered such work in America and Europe.

In fact, ethical concerns haunt this entire subject. Ever since Nazi Germany misused science to support its murderous racist and anti-Semitic theories, Western societies have been extremely sensitive about linking genetics to IQ. Nevertheless, much scientific research suggests that IQ is strongly affected by heredity, although environment, education and nutrition also play a significant role.

According to Professor Steve Hsu, who comes to the study from the University of Oregon, scientists have identified several candidate genes that may relate to IQ, although researchers are not yet sure. He said about 50 per cent of humans' IQ is substantially [heritable]. "Scientists believe there are many genes that affect IQ, but none of them has been definitively discovered so far," he said. "Although there are some candidates in published work, so far the results have not been replicated." So-called IQ genes are those that influence cognitive capabilities, including verbal and spatial abilities, perceptual speed, memory and math skills.

The BGI study, however, did not begin by focusing on suspected IQ genes nor on candidate areas. Instead, geneticists from BGI, together with researchers from Harvard, Oregon and San Diego, are surveying markers across complete sets of genomes, using a method called GWAS (Genome Wide Association Study).

The GWAS method has proved particularly useful in finding genetic variations that contribute to complex diseases such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental illnesses. Researchers first obtain DNA samples from each child by rubbing a swab inside his or her mouth to collect cells. DNA is extracted from the cells and spread on tiny gene chips, which can be later read and automatically surveyed by sequencers in the laboratory.

Specialists known as bioinformaticians will then build a genetic model and calculate the differences in genetic variations between the two groups of youngsters using supercomputers. When variations of brain-related genomes are found to be significantly more frequent in smart children than average ones, these variations will be associated with intelligence. Researchers will use these variations to identify the genetic differences that determine IQ.

Hsu said: "Typical genotyping [or analysis] scans the markers of genetic variation, known as single-nucleotide polymorphism[s], or SNPs. However, scanning the SNPs only gives researchers a crude picture. BGI's sequencing capacity enables us to scan the whole genome rather than just the SNPs." Hsu, a theoretical physicist, is helping the team improve its model design and calculations.

Yin Ye, BGI's vice-president, said researchers have already made some discoveries about IQ genes, but "it's too early to make public our results". While reluctant to give further details about the experiment, he took pains to say the study was essentially focused on studying students' aptitudes and suggesting occupations that would make the best use of their capabilities.

Hsu said the genetic basis for intelligence and other characteristics or traits - known as phenotypes - was likely to be discovered in the next five or ten years.

"Even if our planned study fails," Hsu said, "it's clear on the basis of trends in cost and capacity of sequencing [that] massive GWAS involving 100,000 or 1,000,000 individuals are right around the corner."

The idea of probing the genetic basis for human intelligence came after Beijing high school student Zhao Bowen, 17, who came to BGI on a summer internship last year to work on cucumbers, solved an assignment within a few hours that scientists expected to take him weeks.

Zhao is working as a full-time researcher now, and he will study the genes of 1,000 of his best-performing schoolmates from the affiliated high school of China's prestigious Renmin University, where some of the smartest children from across the country have been sent. It's a collaboration project between the institute and the high school.

Liu Pengzhi , principal of the affiliated high school, told parents in a forum that prodigies accounted for 1 to 3 per cent of the population, and the school was working closely with BGI to develop talented children, in addition to the high school's own experimental classes for nurturing prodigies.


steve hsu said...

She is a very fine person and I think you should reconsider talking about her like that.

Lasker said...

So I was right?

Professors in general and professors of pure mathematics in particular are never fine people. If she was raised to be a maths prodigy by her father all is forgiven though.

ben g said...

Validity - This is important for prediction, but as far as its usefulness as a measure of intelligence wouldn't we be interested more in how much of the variance in educational, economic, etc. outcomes it accounts for? My impression is that accounts for relatively little variation in such outcomes--even when covarying factors arent controlled for-- indicating that its either not measuring mental horseepower as well as it should and/or that intelligence isn't as important for modern life as we think it is.. I'm going off this

Yan Shen said...

I think that part of the problem with using IQ to predict economic outcomes is that jobs aren't necessarily paid in accordance with how cognitively demanding they are. There's probably a modest correlation, but I doubt if its significant. We all know for instance that working as a scientist in a hard science earns you relatively low pay compared to say a working in cushy business job. Furthermore, though on average blue collar jobs pay less than white collar jobs, Charles Murray has pointed out in the book Real Education that the upper portions of the income distribution for certain blue collar jobs pay surprisingly well.

If you restrict yourself only to the subpopulation of those with say IQs 120 or higher, it's highly likely that there's little correlation between IQ and economic earnings. Thomas Sowell once pointed out a study which showed that amongst people with economics degrees, those with only a Bachelors earned on average more than those with PhDs(I presume because the ones with only a Bachelors ended up working in the business sector while the PhDs worked in academia).

Yan Shen said...

"Thomas Sowell once pointed out a study which showed that amongst people with economics degrees, those with only a Bachelors earned on average more than those with PhDs(I presume because the ones with only a Bachelors ended up working in the business sector while the PhDs worked in academia). "

So if you actually compared certain highly specific populations, you might actually find a negative correlation between IQ and income, i.e. if you compared only say scientists with phds to those with mbas.

Lasker said...

If there were only two genes which determined IQ Steve imagines that the map from alleles to IQ would look something like this

when in fact it looks something like this,r:3,s:0&biw=1024&bih=601

Lasker said...

Predicting IQ from genes will never be better than predicting the weather, but Steve is too stupid to understand that.

Shawn said...

Lasker, you moronic Stone Age blank slate troll.

Shawn said...

Your response provides enough clarification. Thanks :)

steve hsu said...

Sad, but funny!

steve hsu said...

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Next time I'm in Palo Alto we'll have a beer and I'll give you the inside scoop. As you can imagine there is a lot of stuff I can't write on the blog...

Rod Carvalho said...

I recall that Shockley was interested in intelligence. He attracted a lot of criticism (as expected) because his views on eugenics upset a lot of people, although they are rational. If intelligence studies leads to finding and nurturing the best minds at a very early age, that would be a positive development.

My fear is that decisions on children's lives will be decided at their birth. In Germany, for example, a children's future is decided as early as in the 4th grade, when they are merely 10 years old. Some bureaucrat decides to which kind of secondary school (gymnasium, realschule, hauptschule) the child will go, which will dictate if the child goes to university or not. I always found that dangerous. If people start using DNA tests at birth to dictate whether some child will ever get a college education, we are creating a class of masters and a class of serfs based on DNA tests. There will always be masters and serfs, but I would prefer if people's efforts and accomplishments would dictate that, rather than a DNA test.

Marble Repair Miami said...

I think that part of the problem with using IQ to predict economic outcomes is that jobs aren't necessarily paid in accordance with how cognitively demanding they are. Thanks for the site.

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