Shared genetic influences between dimensional ASD and ADHD symptoms during child and adolescent development

Stergiakouli, E., Smith, G. D., Martin, J., Skuse, D. H., Viechtbauer, W., Ring, S. M., Ronald, A., Evans, D. E., Fisher, S. E., Thapar, A., & St Pourcain, B. (2017). Shared genetic influences between dimensional ASD and ADHD symptoms during child and adolescent development. Molecular Autism, 8: 18. doi:10.1186/s13229-017-0131-2.
Background: Shared genetic influences between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and
autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms have been reported. Cross-trait genetic relationships are, however,
subject to dynamic changes during development. We investigated the continuity of genetic overlap between ASD
and ADHD symptoms in a general population sample during childhood and adolescence. We also studied uni- and
cross-dimensional trait-disorder links with respect to genetic ADHD and ASD risk.
Methods: Social-communication difficulties (N ≤ 5551, Social and Communication Disorders Checklist, SCDC) and
combined hyperactive-impulsive/inattentive ADHD symptoms (N ≤ 5678, Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire,
SDQ-ADHD) were repeatedly measured in a UK birth cohort (ALSPAC, age 7 to 17 years). Genome-wide summary
statistics on clinical ASD (5305 cases; 5305 pseudo-controls) and ADHD (4163 cases; 12,040 controls/pseudo-controls)
were available from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. Genetic trait variances and genetic overlap between
phenotypes were estimated using genome-wide data.
Results: In the general population, genetic influences for SCDC and SDQ-ADHD scores were shared throughout
development. Genetic correlations across traits reached a similar strength and magnitude (cross-trait rg ≤ 1,
pmin = 3 × 10−4) as those between repeated measures of the same trait (within-trait rg ≤ 0.94, pmin = 7 × 10−4).
Shared genetic influences between traits, especially during later adolescence, may implicate variants in K-RAS signalling
upregulated genes (p-meta = 6.4 × 10−4).
Uni-dimensionally, each population-based trait mapped to the expected behavioural continuum: risk-increasing alleles
for clinical ADHD were persistently associated with SDQ-ADHD scores throughout development (marginal regression
R2 = 0.084%). An age-specific genetic overlap between clinical ASD and social-communication difficulties during
childhood was also shown, as per previous reports. Cross-dimensionally, however, neither SCDC nor SDQ-ADHD scores
were linked to genetic risk for disorder.
Conclusions: In the general population, genetic aetiologies between social-communication difficulties and ADHD
symptoms are shared throughout child and adolescent development and may implicate similar biological pathways
that co-vary during development. Within both the ASD and the ADHD dimension, population-based traits are also linked
to clinical disorder, although much larger clinical discovery samples are required to reliably detect cross-dimensional
trait-disorder relationships.
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