New Research by Foundation Outstanding Achievement Prizewinner Suggests “Spectrum” Attention Disorder

New Research by Foundation Outstanding Achievement Prizewinner Suggests “Spectrum” Attention Disorder

Posted: October 20, 2014

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Research led by Anita Thapar, F.R.C.Psych., Ph.D.,  winner of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation 2014 Ruane Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Research, has provided new evidence that suggests there may be a “spectrum” of attention, hyperactivity/impulsiveness and language function in society associated with clusters of genes linked with the risk for developing ADHD. Rather than being one illness category, these traits may run across a spectrum from mild to extreme, with extreme cases leading to clinical diagnoses. Dr. Thapar will present her recent research this Friday at the Foundation’s annual Mental Health Research Symposium in New York City.

Dr. Thapar, one of the world’s leading experts on ADHD, made early discoveries of the genetic contribution to ADHD development and later of the genetic overlap of ADHD with schizophrenia and ASD. In this new research, she sought to determine whether a combination of common genetic variants, previously found to be associated with clinically diagnosed ADHD, also predict ADHD- and ASD-like traits in the general population. The results of the work were published in the October 15th issue of Biological Psychiatry.

Dr. Thapar and colleagues at the Cardiff University School of Medicine, including Michael O'Donovan, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of the Foundation’s 2012 Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research, and at the University of Bristol, created genetic risk scores for participants of the study. Participants included patients clinically diagnosed with ADHD and 8,229 individuals in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), in England, which has followed its subjects since the children’s birth in the early 1990s.

What was found, the researchers report, is that genetic risk for ADHD was associated with higher levels of hyperactivity/impulsiveness and attention difficulties at ages 7 and 10 in the general population. It was also negatively associated with the ability to appropriately use language in social settings. "Our research finds that a set of genetic risks identified from UK patients with a clinical diagnosis of childhood ADHD also predicted higher levels of developmental difficulties in children from a UK population cohort, the ALSPAC," Dr. Thapar explains.

Says Joanna Martin, Ph.D. candidate and first author of the paper: "Our results provide support at a genetic level for the suggestion that ADHD diagnosis represents the extreme of a spectrum of difficulties. The results are also important as they suggest that the same sets of genetic risks contribute to different aspects of child development which are characteristic features of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder."

John Krystal, M.D., editor of Biological Psychiatry, stated: "It may be the case that at some point polygenic risk scores may, in conjunction with other clinical information, help to identify children who will struggle in school and other demanding contexts due to attention difficulties,” and that such early identification could “provide children who are at risk for difficulties with support so that problems at school may be prevented." Dr. Krystal is a member of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Scientific Council and a three-time NARSAD Grantee.

Read the abstract for this research paper.

Read more about this research.