The developmental genetic architecture of vocabulary skills during the first three years of life: Capturing emerging associations with later-life reading and cognition

Ellen Verhoef*, Chin Yang Shapland, Simon E. Fisher, Philip S Dale, Beate St Pourcain*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
63 Downloads (Pure)


Individual differences in early-life vocabulary measures are heritable and associated with subsequent reading and cognitive abilities, although the underlying mechanisms are little understood. Here, we (i) investigate the developmental genetic architecture of expressive and receptive vocabulary in early-life and (ii) assess timing of emerging genetic associations with mid-childhood verbal and non-verbal skills. We studied longitudinally assessed early life vocabulary measures (15–38 months) and later-life verbal and non-verbal skills (7–8 years) in up to 6,524 unrelated children from the population-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) cohort. We dissected the phenotypic variance of rank transformed scores into genetic and residual components by fitting multivariate structural equation models to genome-wide genetic-relationship matrices. Our findings show that the genetic architecture of early-life vocabulary involves multiple distinct genetic factors. Two of these genetic factors are developmentally stable and also contribute to genetic variation in mid-childhood skills: One genetic factor emerging with expressive vocabulary at 24 months (path coefficient: 0.32(SE = 0.06)) was also related to later-life reading (path coefficient: 0.25(SE = 0.12)) and verbal intelligence (path coefficient: 0.42(SE = 0.13)), explaining up to 17.9% of the phenotypic variation. A second, independent genetic factor emerging with receptive vocabulary at 38 months (path coefficient: 0.15(SE = 0.07)), was more generally linked to verbal and non-verbal cognitive abilities in mid-childhood (reading path coefficient: 0.57(SE = 0.07); verbal intelligence path coefficient: 0.60(0.10); performance intelligence path coefficient: 0.50(SE = 0.08)), accounting for up to 36.1% of the phenotypic variation and the majority of genetic variance in these later-life traits (�66.4%). Thus, the genetic foundations of mid-childhood reading and cognitive abilities are diverse. They involve at least two independent genetic factors that emerge at different developmental stages during early language development and may implicate differences in cognitive processes that are already detectable during toddlerhood.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1009144
Number of pages19
JournalPLoS Genetics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright: © 2021 Verhoef et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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