Emotional, social, and psychiatric problems in children and adolescents have been linked to higher levels of genetic vulnerability for adult depression, according to University of Queensland scientists. They made the finding “Genetic Associations Between Childhood Psychopathology and Adult Depression and Associated Traits in 42 998 Individuals: A Meta-Analysis”, which appears in JAMA Psychiatry, while analyzing the genetic data of more than 42,000 children and adolescents from seven cohorts across five European countries.

Christel Middeldorp, MD, PhD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Health Research Centre at the University of Queensland, said that researchers have also found a link with a higher genetic vulnerability for insomnia, neuroticism, and body mass index.

“By contrast, study participants with higher genetic scores for educational attainment and emotional wellbeing were found to have reduced childhood problems,” she pointed out.

“We calculated a person’s level of genetic vulnerability by adding up the number of risk genes they had for a specific disorder or trait, and then made adjustments based on the level of importance of each gene. We found the relationship was mostly similar across ages.”

“Adult mood disorders are often preceded by behavioral and emotional problems in childhood. It is yet unclear what explains the associations between childhood psychopathology and adult traits. To investigate whether genetic risk for adult mood disorders and associated traits is associated with childhood disorders,” write the investigators.

“This meta-analysis examined data from 7 ongoing longitudinal birth and childhood cohorts from the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Starting points of data collection ranged from July 1985 to April 2002. Participants were repeatedly assessed for childhood psychopathology from ages 6 to 17 years. Data analysis occurred from September 2017 to May 2019.”

“Individual polygenic scores (PGS) were constructed in children based on genome-wide association studies of adult major depression, bipolar disorder, subjective well-being, neuroticism, insomnia, educational attainment, and body mass index (BMI).”

“Results from this study suggest the existence of a set of genetic factors influencing a range of traits across the life span with stable associations present throughout childhood. Knowledge of underlying mechanisms may affect treatment and long-term outcomes of individuals with psychopathology.”

The results indicate there are shared genetic factors that affect a range of psychiatric and related traits across a person’s lifespan. Around 50 percent of children and adolescents with psychiatric problems, such as attention deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), continue to experience mental disorders as adults, and are at risk of disengaging with their school community among other social and emotional problems, added Middeldorp.

“Our findings are important as they suggest this continuity between childhood and adult traits is partly explained by genetic risk,” she continued. “Individuals at risk of being affected should be the focus of attention and targeted treatment. Although genetic vulnerability is not accurate enough at this stage to make individual predictions about how a person’s symptoms will develop over time, it may become so in the future, in combination with other risk factors.”

Middeldorp believes that this study and others may support precision medicine by providing targeted treatments to children at the highest risk of persistent emotional and social problems.

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