Compared to all other animals, humans have an extraordinary capacity to acquire new, complex skills. There is a need, at both the individual and the societal level, to develop new strategies for optimizing skill learning (SL). However, in order to optimize a mechanism it must first be understood. An essential task today is therefore to develop better models of the processes underlying SL and, in particular, of how individual variation in SL is shaped by an interaction between practice and numerous other factors, psychological, environmental as well as genetic. In the ‘Humans making music’ program based on our large collection of twin data of twins registered with the Swedish Twin Registry (STR) – the most recent STAGE wave - we have extensively addressed gene-environment interplay underlying expertise using music as a model behaviour. Based on our recent work using the twin data and recent findings from other research groups, it has become apartment that SL depends on numerous factors in addition to practice, as well as a complex gene-environment interplay.
Another central question of interest to our lab concerns the potential positive effects of active engagement in cultural activities, such as music, on health and wellbeing. Epidemiological studies demonstrate associations between cultural engagement, health and longevity. However, it has remained unclear to what extent these associations reflect causal influences of cultural engagement, as opposed to reverse causality or effects of genetic constitution (i.e., self-selection). A better understanding of the culture-health link will eventually pave the way for development of successful cultural activity based interventions. By combining our music twin data with health data from national registries, we again could
highlight the importance of gene-environment interplay and genetic confounding in above associations.
To further understand the mechanisms underlying such gene-environment interplay we now aim to extend our research by also including measured genotypes. We therefore wish to combine our existing phenotypic STAGE data with the genetic data, which recently have become available. In STAGE, extensive data on music related variables as well as general psychological traits were collected from more than 11,000 twins in 2012-2013. Data from these twins have recently been linked to the national patient and death registry to get registry based health diagnoses. In terms of genetic data, these data will be used to derived polygenic scores (e.g. on rhythmic abilities) and to conduct GWAS analyses on some of the music related traits (e.g. musical aptitudes and general intelligence), which will then – in form of summary statistics – be contributed to consortia meta-GWAS efforts. As they become available, we would also like to add Polygenic Risk Scores as derived by the SSCAG for the STR, including educational attainment, intelligence and mental and somatic traits, in particular depressive symptoms, schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, and cardiovascular disease.