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New research finds genetic underpinnings of ADHD can be reliably detected

The findings are important because detecting ADHD early means individuals can then benefit from early intervention and treatment options.

New research from Birkbeck reports that the genetic ‘load’ that an individual inherits influences their risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This ‘load’, known as a polygenic score, works reliably: it consistently associates with likelihood of developing ADHD. 

The researchers say the findings, published today in the leading journal Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, are important because detecting ADHD early means individuals can then benefit from early interventions, such as tailored support before and during the school years. The polygenic score for ADHD may in the future be one of the characteristics that is used in combination with other factors, such as family history, to identify individuals who are likely to develop ADHD.  

Professor Angelica Ronald, first author of the publication and Director of the Genes Environment Lifespan Laboratory at Birkbeck, said: “ADHD is a common condition that affects approximately one in 20 children and also many adults. It has been known for some time that the causes of ADHD are partly genetic and inherited from parents to offspring. The condition is characterised by symptoms of hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsivity. It can severely affect individuals and their families in a variety of ways including relationships, schooling and behaviour. There is an urgency to develop accurate biological and causal models of ADHD in order to devise effective early intervention and treatment options. 

“In our analysis it was found that the polygenic score for ADHD (the score that reflects the number of genetic markers inherited that increases the chances of developing ADHD) is specific to ADHD and on average, high scorers will develop ADHD more often than low or medium scorers. Therefore, in the future, it may be possible for doctors to use the polygenic score for ADHD as well as a variety of characteristics to help predict who will develop ADHD. The polygenic score for ADHD is not 100% predictive because we do not yet know of all the genes involved, and there are other non-genetic factors to take into consideration too.”

The study involved a systematic review of the latest research on the ADHD polygenic score. It is a fast-growing field of research, with over 40 high-quality studies included in the review, all published in the last three years. The findings are highly consistent across ages, countries and samples, suggesting the ADHD polygenic score can be relied upon. 

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