Childhood attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as an extreme of a continuous trait: a quantitative genetic study of 8,500 twin pairs


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  Although the clinical utility of categorically defined attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is well established, there is also strong evidence supporting the notion of ADHD as an extreme of a continuous trait. Nevertheless, the question of whether the etiology is the same for different levels of DSM–IV ADHD symptoms remains to be investigated. The aim of this study was to assess genetic links between the extreme and the subthreshold range of ADHD symptoms.

Method:  Parents of all Swedish 9- and 12-year-old twins born between 1992 and 2000 were interviewed for DSM–IV ADHD symptoms and associated conditions. Two validated cutoff values were used for screening and assigning research diagnoses. Response rate was 80%. Twin methods were applied to investigate the extent to which ADHD is etiologically distinct from subthreshold variations in ADHD symptoms.

Results:  Extremes analyses indicated a strong genetic link between the extreme and the subthreshold variation, with almost identical group heritability estimates around .60 for the diagnostic (prevalence 1.78%) and screening (prevalence 9.75%) criteria of ADHD.

Conclusion:  A strong genetic link between the extreme and the subthreshold variation of DSM–IV based assessments of ADHD symptoms was found. The data suggest that ADHD is best viewed as the quantitative extreme of genetic and environmental factors operating dimensionally throughout the distribution of ADHD symptoms, indicating that the same etiologic factors are involved in the full range of symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.