DAVID GREENE, HOST:

From pregnancy, let's turn the focus to childhood. There is new research into how genes and the environment interact, as they help shape how small children and adolescents learn. Here's NPR's social science Shankar Vedantam.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: John Hewitt is a neuroscientist who studies the biology of intelligence. Hewitt has applied his scientific knowledge to his own children's upbringing.

JOHN HEWITT: I'm a father of four children myself, and I never worried too much about the environment that I was providing for my children because I thought well, it would all work out in the end, anyway; aren't the genes especially powerful?

VEDANTAM: Hewitt and other scientists have found that intelligence has a strong biological component. If your parents are smart, you'll probably be smart, even without a lot of fuss about the right schools and learning environments. But recently, Hewitt discovered something that surprised him.

HEWITT: Well, I might have been wrong. It may well be that the environmental boost you can get, or the detriment you can suffer from adversity, may indeed be a little more important at a critical period in adolescence than I had formerly thought. And this may be especially true for parents of very bright children.

VEDANTAM: What Hewitt is talking about is a new understanding of the interplay between your genetic inheritance and how you learn from the environment. He credits another researcher, Angela Brant, for coming up with a new insight into this critical period in development.

HEWITT: To understand what Brant found, here's some context: Both kids and adults learn things, but children are better than adults at some kinds of learning. For example, Brant said, think about trying to learn a new language.

ANGELA BRANT: In language you have specific words and vocabulary, and you also have the broad patterns of the language - the syntax. We know that adults can pick up vocabulary words, but they're less able to pick up syntax.

VEDANTAM: Neuroscientists think the reason children do better than adults, when it comes to a new language, is that young brains are more receptive to learning.

BRANT: Early on in development, until adolescence, there are lots of new connections being made between neurons to store patterns and information collected from the environment.

VEDANTAM: By adolescence, this sensitive period in the brain comes to an end. Learning new things gets harder - at least, that's what we thought. Brant, at Pennsylvania State University, and Hewitt, at the University of Colorado, as well as other researchers recently analyzed a large number of children and followed them over time. Some were genetically identical twins, some were fraternal twins; some were biological siblings, and some were adopted siblings.

Brant noticed that kids with higher IQs had an extended period in adolescence where they continue to learn things at a rapid pace, just like much younger children.

BRANT: I found that twins that had a higher IQ were showing a more childlike pattern of influence during adolescence.

HEWITT: It was as if there was an extended sensitive period in the higher IQ individuals. Or another way of looking at it, the sensitivity to the environment - which is characteristic of earlier childhood - seemed to end earlier for individuals with lower IQ.

VEDANTAM: Hewitt and Brant don't know why some teenagers continue to learn at the pace of much younger children. It may be that smart kids gravitate to challenging activities, and this keeps them receptive to learning. Or it could be that genes that lead to high IQ also trigger an extended learning period.

The study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that for many children, it may be a mistake to stop learning new things. Even if you're a teenager, it might not be too late to start Chinese, chess or the cello.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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