You might already know that ADHD runs in families—especially if yours is one of them. Science has shown it, too. Small studies have suggested that ADHD is hereditary and has a genetic factor. Now, a massive study has found specific gene segments that are related to ADHD and appear to increase the chance of having the common condition.
The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, is the first of its kind. An international team of researchers used data from several studies and databases. (One of their sources was 23andMe.) They compared the DNA of 20,000 people who had ADHD to 35,000 who didn’t have it. The subjects were mostly of European descent.
We asked Understood experts Nelson Dorta, Thomas E. Brown and Stephanie Sarkis to weigh in.
The study used state-of-the-art genetic mapping. Researchers looked at a wide range of data and found 12 gene segments with variations related to ADHD. These variations signal a difference in brain development for people with ADHD. They also impact how brain cells communicate with each other.
One of the gene segments that researchers found regulates a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in ADHD. This brain chemical is called dopamine. It impacts attention and motivation. Another segment plays a role in language development.
Almost everyone has traits of ADHD. But people who are diagnosed with it have more gene variations that appear to be related to ADHD. The study found that ADHD symptoms are the extreme version of typical behaviors, which backs up other research.
Key Takeaways for Parents
The study showed a link between genetics and certain traits. These included harmful behaviors, such as smoking and risky sex. It also showed a link to health issues. Three that were mentioned were obesity, insomnia and depression.
One thing parents can take away from the study is that ADHD is a matter of biology. “Kids can’t control some ADHD behaviors just as much as you can’t control your heart beating,” says Sarkis.
Brown says the study reinforces that ADHD isn’t the result of changes in our culture. Using cell phones, playing video games or watching a lot of television don’t cause ADHD.
That doesn’t mean that external factors play no role in a child’s challenges, however. “The environment in which a person is born and raised can make ADHD more or less problematic,” Brown adds.
There is a limitation to the study, according to Dorta. Some people with ADHD self-reported their condition while others had an ADHD diagnosis. Still, the data was reliable and consistent with other studies.
This research reveals a deeper understanding of the role genes play in ADHD. But Brown stresses that for now, there’s no genetic test that can determine if someone has ADHD or not. More studies need to be done. But researchers continue to look for possible causes—and perhaps treatments—for ADHD.
Get a sense of a day in the life of a child with ADHD. And learn about research into genetic testing and ADHD medication.
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About the author
Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.