Attentional switching forms a genetic link between attention problems and autistic traits in adults

Polderman, T. J. C., Hoekstra, R. A., Vinkhuyzen, A. A. E., Sullivan, P. F., van der Sluis, S. and Posthuma, D. (2013) Attentional switching forms a genetic link between attention problems and autistic traits in adults. Psychological Medicine, 43 9: 1985-1996. doi:10.1017/S0033291712002863

Author Polderman, T. J. C.
Hoekstra, R. A.
Vinkhuyzen, A. A. E.
Sullivan, P. F.
van der Sluis, S.
Posthuma, D.
Title Attentional switching forms a genetic link between attention problems and autistic traits in adults
Journal name Psychological Medicine   Check publisher's open access policy
ISSN 0033-2917
Publication date 2013-09-01
Year available 2012
Sub-type Article (original research)
DOI 10.1017/S0033291712002863
Open Access Status Not Open Access
Volume 43
Issue 9
Start page 1985
End page 1996
Total pages 12
Place of publication Cambridge, United Kingdom
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Language eng
Abstract Autistic traits are characterized by social and communication problems, restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities. The relation between autistic traits and personality characteristics is largely unknown. This study focused on the relation between five specific autistic traits measured with the abridged version of the Autism Spectrum Quotient ("social problems," "preference for routine," "attentional switching difficulties," "imagination impairments," "fascination for numbers and patterns") and Experience Seeking (ES) in a general population sample of adults, and subsequently investigated the genetic and environmental etiology between these traits. Self-reported data on autistic traits and ES were collected in a population sample (n = 559) of unrelated individuals, and in a population based family sample of twins and siblings (n = 560). Phenotypic, genetic and environmental associations between traits were examined in a bivariate model, accounting for sex and age differences. Phenotypically, ES correlated significantly with "preference for routine" and "imagination impairments" in both samples but was unrelated to the other autistic traits. Genetic analyses in the family sample revealed that the association between ES and "preference for routine" and "imagination impairments" could largely be explained by a shared genetic factor (89% and 70%, respectively). Our analyses demonstrated at a phenotypic and genetic level an inverse relationship between ES and specific autistic traits in adults. ES is associated with risk taking behavior such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior and financial problems. Future research could investigate whether autistic traits, in particular strong routine preference and impaired imagination skills, serve as protective factors for such risky behaviors. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Formatted abstract
Background Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and autistic traits often occur together. The pattern and etiology of co-occurrence are largely unknown, particularly in adults. This study investigated the co-occurrence between both traits in detail, and subsequently examined the etiology of the co-occurrence, using two independent adult population samples.

Method Data on ADHD traits (Inattention and Hyperactivity/Impulsivity) were collected in a population sample (S1, n = 559) of unrelated individuals. Data on Attention Problems (AP) were collected in a population-based family sample of twins and siblings (S2, n = 560). In both samples five dimensions of autistic traits were assessed (social skills, routine, attentional switching, imagination, patterns).

Results Hyperactive traits (S1) did not correlate substantially with the autistic trait dimensions. For Inattention (S1) and AP (S2), the correlations with the autistic trait dimensions were low, apart from a prominent correlation with the attentional switching scale (0.47 and 0.32 respectively). Analyses in the genetically informative S2 revealed that this association could be explained by a shared genetic factor.

Conclusions Our findings suggest that the co-occurrence of ADHD traits and autistic traits in adults is not determined by problems with hyperactivity, social skills, imagination or routine preferences. Instead, the association between those traits is due primarily to shared attention-related problems (inattention and attentional switching capacity). As the etiology of this association is purely genetic, biological pathways involving attentional control could be a promising focus of future studies aimed at unraveling the genetic causes of these disorders.
Keyword ADHD
Twin study
Deficit hyperactivity disorder
Copy-number variation
Spectrum quotient AQ
Genome-wide analysis
Deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Community twin
ADHD behaviors
Q-Index Code C1
Q-Index Status Confirmed Code
Grant ID VENI-451-08-025
Institutional Status UQ
Additional Notes Published online 21 December 2012

Document type: Journal Article
Sub-type: Article (original research)
Collections: Queensland Brain Institute Publications
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