Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Genes and Low Birth Weight Combine to Increase Risk of Conduct Problems Alongside ADHD

In the past, we have investigated the role of the COMT gene and its effects on the onset and severity of ADHD cases. Now it appears that this gene may play a role not only in the ADHD itself, but conduct or behavior disorders which often occur alongside (or are comorbid to) of ADHD.

Recall from earlier posts that COMT (which is short for Catechol O-Methyltransferase) refers to both a gene and an enzyme protein encoded by the gene, which is responsible for maintaining a balance of neurotransmitters such as dopamine in key regions of the brain. In essence, the COMT enzyme is responsible for breaking down levels of free dopamine in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the area highlighted in orange). Keep in mind that in another key brain region, called the striatum, another series of enzymes called the dopamine transporter (DAT) proteins play a greater regulatory role in maintaining dopamine levels. However, in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (see area below), the COMT gene and COMT enzymes play a much greater role in regulating the balance of key neurotransmitters necessary for communication between brain cells.

The prefrontal cortex region of the brain is approximated by the area in orange in the figure above. Note that we are looking from the left side of the brain of an individual facing to his or her left. The numbering system refers to a subseries of brain regions from which this original figure was taken.

As a reference, the striatum region of the brain can be seen in the green areas of the figure below (original file source here):

Returning to our discussion on the COMT gene and the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, it is important to note that there are two main "flavors" of this gene and subsequent enzyme, the "Val" and the "Met" (I've mentioned previously in other posts what "Val" and "Met" stand for, but as a quick summary: "Val" is short for valine, and "Met" is short for methionine, both of which are common amino acids found in almost every protein in our bodies. However, these two amino acids exhibit slightly different biochemical properties, and a simple substitution of one for the other can actually result in significant changes as to how a protein functions. For the COMT enzyme, which is a special type of protein, the simple change from a "Val" to a "Met" or vice versa can actually dictate how efficient the whole enzyme becomes). COMT enzymes comprised of the "Val" form are actually 3-4 times more efficient at breaking down dopamine in key brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, which results in overall lower levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

Since individuals with ADHD are often deficient in free levels of dopamine in the prefontal cortex region of the brain, having the "Val" form of the COMT gene often poses a greater risk of exhibiting ADHD behavior. We have seen the effects of this Met/Val difference with regards to cognitive tasks and even the effects of these different gene forms on the onset of alcoholism-related ADHD symptoms. For example, on a post on gene variations and attentional control, we saw that individuals with the "Met" form of the gene (and enzyme) had improved attention-related control than those with the "Val" form.

With regards to conduct disorders comorbid to ADHD, it also appears that the lower dopamine levels associated with the "Val" forms of these enzymes is also a major determining factor in the childhood onset of anti-social behavior and conduct disorders. Furthermore, it appears that environmental factors and this "Val" form genetic factor can actually interact and combine, to increase the risk of an individual with ADHD in developing some sort of conduct problem to go alongside his or her ADHD symptoms.

Low birth weight, which has a number of implications for other disorders, was found to be a good indicator of childhood conduct problems appearing alongside of ADHD in its own right. It is believed that low birth weight is a good indicator of a poor prenatal environment, which is why so many disorders and developmental issues are often associated with low birth weights. Statistically, it was noted that children with low birth weights (less than 2.5 kilograms or 5.5 pounds) were at an increased risk of developing co-existing behavioral problems (conduct disorders) alongside of an ADHD diagnosis. As mentioned before, individuals who were unfortunate enough to have one or more copies of the "Val" version of the COMT gene plus a low birth weight, were statistically more likely to exhibit problems associated with conduct-related disorders.

As a quick reference to the severity of the effects of low birth weight and the "Val" version of the COMT gene, please consult the table below. This data was taken from an article by Thapar and coworkers on the effects of COMT genes and low birth weight on the onset of antisocial behavior in children with ADHD.

Notes on the table above: Relative Conduct Symptom Score refers to the severity of conduct problems which are given a numerical value (higher being more problems). I have assigned the first group a value of 1 as a reference. This refers to individuals who have at least one copy of the "Met" (which, in the cases of ADHD appears to be the "good") form of the COMT gene and enzyme, as well as a normal birth weight. As we can see from the table, having either a low birth weight or both copies of the "Val" (the "bad" form of the COMT gene with regards to ADHD) form resulted in a roughly 50% increase in symptoms of conduct or behavioral problems. However, for individuals who possessed both "Val" forms of the COMT gene and enzyme and had a low birth weight, we can see that conduct symptoms associated with ADHD shot up to over three times the original level. This at least suggests that while both genes and developmental environments can play a significant role in the onset of behavioral problems associated with ADHD, it is when these two factors are combined, that remarkable differences in symptoms begin to appear. In other words, strong gene-environment interactions are associated with antisocial behaviors in individuals with ADHD.

Keep in mind that these findings are somewhat inconclusive. Another research group performed a similar experiment, but was unable to replicate these findings which associated low birth weight and the "Val" form of the COMT genes to an increase in antisocial behavior in children with ADHD. Nevertheless, an additional study tied the presence of "Val" forms of the COMT gene to increased aggressiveness, conduct problems, and criminal behavior in individuals with ADHD. Although the information and conclusions from different studies on these topics remains controversial, the fact that the "Val" form of the COMT gene has been implicated in so many other deficits associated with ADHD, I believe that we should take notice of some of these recent findings.

The term conduct disorder itself has a relatively widespread range of meanings. With regards to ADHD and the content of this post, I consider conduct disorders to include behaviors such as oppositional behaviors towards parents, teachers and other authorities, negative peer interactions, pervasive negative attitudes and interactions towards peers and authorities, and, in more extreme cases, illegal substance abuse, cruelty to animals and other individuals, destruction of property, stealing, and other criminal behaviors (please not that the Thapar article highlighted more of the latter and more severe behaviors on the list when addressing the topic of conduct disorders). Of course, there is a fair degree of ambiguity and a wide range of severity in the behaviors from this list, but I think we can all begin to picture the difference between a child who is merely hyperactive, implulsive and inattentive versus one who has a pervasively antagonistic attitude and behavioral patterns to go along with the classic ADHD symptoms.

The unique thing about antisocial behaviors with regards to ADHD is that they appear to be more genetically heritable than generalized antisocial behaviors, and that ADHD-like hyperactivity can potentiate and worsen the severity of accompanying conduct problems. Furthermore, it appears that children may be much more susceptible to antisocial behaviors arising from damage to the prefrontal cortex than are adults. This article suggests that when two or more factors which each have notable effects on ADHD-related conduct problems or comorbid disorders, the combined effects of two or more of these factors can operate in a synergistic fashion. It is my opinion that many of these genetic and early developmental factors will take on an increasingly powerful role with regards to both the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and accompanying comorbid disorders such as behavioral and conduct problems.

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