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Molecular Genetics of Attention


Address for correspondence: Mark A. Bellgrove, Ph.D., School of Psychology, University of Queensland, 4072 Queensland, Australia.


The sequencing of the human genome and the identification of a vast array of DNA polymorphisms has afforded cognitive scientists with the opportunity to interrogate the genetic basis of cognition with renewed vigor. The extant literature on the molecular genetics of sustained and spatial attention is reviewed herein. Advances in our understanding of the neural substrates of sustained and spatial attention arising from the cognitive neurosciences can help guide putative linkages in cognitive genetics. In line with catecholamine models of sustained attention, associations have been reported between sustained attention and allelic variation in the dopamine beta hydroxylase gene (DBH), the dopamine D2 and D4 receptor genes (DRD2; DRD4) and the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1). Much evidence implicates the cholinergic system in spatial attention. Accordingly, individual differences in spatial attention have been associated with variation in an alpha-4 cholinergic receptor gene (CHRNA4). APOE-ɛ4 allele dosage has been shown to influence the speed of attentional reorienting in independent samples of nonaffected individuals. Preliminary evidence in both healthy children and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suggests and association with variants of the DAT1 gene and the control of spatial attention across the hemifields. With the recent development of high-throughput genotyping techniques, such as microarrays, the time seems ripe for a genomewide association study that can identify quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for sustained and spatial attention. The identification of QTLs for attention will provide a range of novel candidate genes for disorders of attention, such as ADHD and schizophrenia, and will drive cognitive neuroscientists to understand how DNA variation influences the neural substrates of attention.