Genetic and environmental influences on the familial transmission of externalizing disorders in adoptive and twin offspring

Brian M Hicks, Katherine T Foster, William G Iacono, Matt McGue
JAMA Psychiatry 2013, 70 (10): 1076-83

IMPORTANCE: Twin-family studies have shown that parent-child resemblance on substance use disorders and antisocial behavior can be accounted for by the transmission of a general liability to a spectrum of externalizing disorders. Most studies, however, include only biological parents and offspring, which confound genetic and environmental transmission effects.

OBJECTIVE: To examine the familial transmission of externalizing disorders among both adoptive (genetically unrelated) and biological relatives to better distinguish genetic and environmental mechanisms of transmission.

DESIGN: Family study design wherein each family included the mother, father, and 2 offspring, including monozygotic twin, dizygotic twin, nontwin biological, and adoptive offspring. Structural equation modeling was used to estimate familial transmission effects and their genetic and environmental influences.

SETTING: Participants were recruited from the community and assessed at a university laboratory.

PARTICIPANTS: A total of 1590 families with biological offspring and 409 families with adoptive offspring. Offspring participants were young adults (mean age, 26.2 years).

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Symptom counts of conduct disorder, adult antisocial behavior, and alcohol, nicotine, and drug dependence. RESULTS There was a medium effect for the transmission of the general externalizing liability for biological parents (r = 0.27-0.30) but not for adoptive parents (r = 0.03-0.07). In contrast, adoptive siblings exhibited significant similarity on the general externalizing liability (r = 0.21). Biometric analyses revealed that the general externalizing liability was highly heritable (a2 = 0.61) but also exhibited significant shared environmental influences (c2 = 0.20).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Parent-child resemblance for substance use disorders and antisocial behavior is primarily due to the genetic transmission of a general liability to a spectrum of externalizing disorders. Including adoptive siblings revealed a greater role of shared environmental influences on the general externalizing liability than previously detected in twin studies and indicates that sibling rather than parent-child similarity indexes important environmental risk factors for externalizing disorders.

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