Researchers found strong evidence that polygenic scores (PGS) for adult major depression, subjective wellbeing, neuroticism, insomnia, educational attainment, and BMI are associated with childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),   internalizing, and social problems. The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, comprised the largest childhood target sample to date (N=42,998).

Wonuola A. Akingbuwa, MSc, of the department of biological psychology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and colleagues used data from 7 ongoing longitudinal birth and childhood cohorts from the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Finland from July 1985 to April 2002. They assessed participants repeatedly for childhood psychopathology from ages 6 to 17 years. They constructed individual PGS in children based on genome wide association studies (GWAS) of adult major depression, bipolar disorder, subjective wellbeing, neuroticism, insomnia, educational attainment, and BMI.  The researchers tested associations between PGS and ADHD symptoms and internalizing and social problems in childhood using regression meta-analyses.

Overall, PGS for adult major depression, neuroticism, BMI, and insomnia correlated positively with childhood psychopathology (β estimate range, 0.023-0.042; 95% CI, 0.017-0.049). In contrast, educational attainment and subjective wellbeing demonstrated a negative association with childhood psychopathology (β, −0.026 to −0.046; 95% CI, -0.020 to -0.057). The association between ADHD and PGS for educational attainment increased with age (change in β, -0.0032; 95% CI, -0.0048 to -0.0017).

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The researchers suggested that the genetic associations between education attainment and BMI and major depression may become more apparent after adolescence while they may be already apparent earlier for childhood ADHD and social problems in relation to BMI. The study authors concluded that insight into these associations may help identify vulnerable children who may benefit from targeted treatment.

The results of the study are limited to those of European ancestry and may not be generalizable to a broader population. Furthermore, associations between PGS and childhood psychopathology measures may be confounded by unknown gene-environment interactions, and participant dropout may have influenced the results.

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“Our results indicate a consistent pattern of genetic associations between PGS of adult depression and associated traits and childhood psychopathology across age,” the investigators noted, “Consistent genetic associations across age suggest a set of genetic variants that influence a range of traits across the life span.”

Disclosure: Multiple study authors reported grants from public research programs, but none reported ties to the pharmaceutical industry.


Akingbuwa WA, Hammerschlag AR, Jami ES, et al. Genetic associations between childhood psychopathology and adult depression and associated traits in 42 998 individuals. A meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020. Doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0527.

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor