Genetic link to childhood emotional, social and psychiatric problems

Published on Tuesday, 05 May 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Emotional, social and psychiatric problems in children and adolescents may be linked to higher levels of vulnerability to adult depression according to new research from the University of Queensland.

This information is helpful for early childhood educators as it highlights the importance of early recognition of and intervention for preschool aged children, to help prevent problems in later life.

The researchers made the finding while analysing the genetic data of more than 42,000 children and adolescents from seven groups across Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and UK.

Professor Christel Middeldorp said 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,” Professor Middeldorp said.

“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.”

The results indicate there are shared genetic factors that affect a range of psychiatric and related traits across a person’s lifespan.

Professor Christel Middeldorp said around 50 per cent 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.

“Our findings are important as they suggest this continuity between childhood and adult traits is partly explained by genetic risk,” Professor Middeldorp said.

Although it is too early to use genetic vulnerability to predict how a child’s symptoms will develop overtime, this, in combination with other risk factors, may become clearer in the future and Professor Middeldorp says this is important as children at risk of being affected should be the focus of attention and targeted treatment.

 “And, this may support precision medicine by providing targeted treatments to children at the highest risk of persistent emotional and social problems,” she said.

You can read the full study here.

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