Executive functions and impulsivity as transdiagnostic correlates of psychopathology in childhood: A behavioral genetic analysis


Executive functions (EFs) and impulsivity are dimensions of self-regulation that are both related to psychopathology. However, self-report measures of impulsivity and laboratory EF tasks typically display small correlations, and existing research indicates that impulsivity and EFs may tap separate aspects of self-regulation that independently statistically predict psychopathology in adulthood. However, relationships between EFs, impulsivity, and psychopathology may be different in childhood compared to adulthood. Here, we examine whether these patterns hold in the baseline assessment of the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) sample, a national sample of over 11,000 children (including 749 twin pairs) ages 9–10 years. We examine the phenotypic and genetic relationships among latent variables for different components of EFs and multiple facets of impulsivity. Additionally, we assess how EFs and impulsivity relate to composite measures and latent variables of psychopathology derived from parent report. EFs were weakly correlated with impulsivity, and the strength varied by impulsivity facet, emphasizing their separability. We did not identify significant genetic and environmental correlations between EFs and impulsivity. Moreover, controlling for their small relationships with each other, both EFs and some facets of impulsivity statistically predicted an Externalizing factor, attention problems, and social problems, and twin analyses suggested these relationships were genetic in origin. These findings indicate that EFs and impulsivity represent phenotypically and genetically separable aspects of self-regulation that are both transdiagnostic correlates of psychopathology in childhood.

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience