Genetic associations between executive functions and a general factor of psychopathology


Objective Symptoms of psychopathology covary across diagnostic boundaries, and a family history of elevated symptoms for a single psychiatric disorder places an individual at heightened risk for a broad range of other psychiatric disorders. Both twin-based and genome-wide molecular methods indicate a strong genetic basis for the familial aggregation of psychiatric disease. This has led researchers to prioritize the search for highly heritable childhood risk factors for transdiagnostic psychopathology. Cognitive abilities that involve the selective control and regulation of attention, known as executive functions (EFs), are a promising set of risk factors. Method In a population-based sample of child and adolescent twins (n = 1,913, mean age = 13.1 years), we examined genetic overlap between both EFs and general intelligence (g) and a transdiagnostic dimension of vulnerability to psychopathology, comprising symptoms of anxiety, depression, neuroticism, aggression, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, hyperactivity, and inattention. Psychopathology symptoms in children were rated by children and their parents. Results Latent factors representing general EF and g were highly heritable (h2 = 86%−92%), and genetic influences on both sets of cognitive abilities were robustly correlated with transdiagnostic genetic influences on psychopathology symptoms (genetic r values ranged from −0.20 to −0.38). Conclusion General EF and g robustly index genetic risk for transdiagnostic symptoms of psychopathology in childhood. Delineating the developmental and neurobiological mechanisms underlying observed associations between cognitive abilities and psychopathology remains a priority for ongoing research.

Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry