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Keywords:

  • Neurodevelopmental problems;
  • general factor;
  • twin study;
  • heritability;
  • factor analysis

Background

Although neurodevelopmental disorders are demarcated as discrete entities in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental disorders, empirical evidence indicates that there is a high degree of overlap among them. The first aim of this investigation was to explore if a single general factor could account for the large degree of observed overlap among neurodevelopmental problems, and explore whether this potential factor was primarily genetic or environmental in origin. The second aim was to explore whether there was systematic covariation, either genetic or environmental, over and above that contributed by the potential general factor, unique to each syndrome.

Method

Parents of all Swedish 9- and 12-year-old twin pairs born between 1992 and 2002 were targeted for interview regarding problems typical of autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental conditions (response rate: 80 percent). Structural equation modeling was conducted on 6,595 pairs to examine the genetic and environmental structure of 53 neurodevelopmental problems.

Results

One general genetic factor accounted for a large proportion of the phenotypic covariation among the 53 symptoms. Three specific genetic subfactors identified ‘impulsivity,’ ‘learning problems,’ and ‘tics and autism,’ respectively. Three unique environment factors identified ‘autism,’ ‘hyperactivity and impulsivity,’ and ‘inattention and learning problems,’ respectively.

Conclusion

One general genetic factor was responsible for the wide-spread phenotypic overlap among all neurodevelopmental symptoms, highlighting the importance of addressing broad patient needs rather than specific diagnoses. The unique genetic factors may help guide diagnostic nomenclature, whereas the unique environmental factors may highlight that neurodevelopmental symptoms are responsive to change at the individual level and may provide clues into different mechanisms and treatments. Future research would benefit from assessing the general factor separately from specific factors to better understand observed overlap among neurodevelopmental problems.