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Childhood Mood, Behavioral Problems May Share Genetic Features With Some Adult Conditions

NEW YORK – Polygenic scores (PGS) developed using genetic risk variants identified in prior genome-wide association studies on adult mood conditions such as depression and neuroticism appear to be over-represented in children with social problems and other psychopathological traits, according to new research from an international team led by members of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium's bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder working groups.

"Adult mood disorders are often preceded by behavioral and emotional problems in childhood," corresponding author Wonuola Akingbuwa, a biological psychology researcher at VU Amsterdam, and her co-authors wrote in a paper published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday. However, they added, it is "yet unclear what explains the associations between childhood psychopathology and adult traits."

To explore potential genetic contributors to this apparent connection, the researchers brought together data from seven longitudinal birth cohort and childhood studies being done in the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Finland for a meta-analysis that encompassed almost 43,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 years who had participated in ongoing childhood psychopathology assessments.

Those assessments evaluated symptoms related to conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), social problems, and internalizing problems.

Using data available between the fall of 2017 and May 2019, the researcher put together a series of PGS based on variants associated with everything from depression or bipolar disorder to insomnia and body mass index (BMI). The analyses revealed apparent ties between childhood psychopathology traits and PGS for several adult conditions, including major depression, neuroticism, insomnia, and BMI, they reported.

"Our study provides novel evidence for the presence of shared genetic factors between childhood psychopathology and depression and associated adult traits, as well as their stability across development," the authors reported, noting that "[i]nsights into these associations may aid identification of children at risk for a relatively chronic course of illness, ultimately facilitating targeted treatment to this vulnerable group."

On the other hand, the team noted that an educational attainment PGS, a PGS for subjective well-being in adults, and a bipolar disorder PGS did not show broad associations with childhood psychopathology traits.

Specific traits such as ADHD in children did appear to coincide with risk scores for educational attainment or BMI to some extent. For example, the authors noted that the educational attainment PGS was more strongly linked to ADHD than to internalizing or social problems, while the BMI PGS corresponded with ADHD and social problems in children more strongly than it did to internalizing problems.

Even so, the results overall pointed to core sets of adult mood disorder-related genetic variants that were consistently associated with childhood psychopathology regardless of the participants' age and the specific subset of symptoms they displayed, the authors explained, suggesting that "[f]uture studies focusing on samples from high-risk populations are warranted to investigate whether PGS for adult traits, together with other variables, can be used to build risk profiles with reasonable accuracy."