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Nature × nurture: Genetic vulnerabilities interact with physical maltreatment to promote conduct problems

  • SARA R. JAFFEE (a1) (a2), AVSHALOM CASPI (a2) (a3), TERRIE E. MOFFITT (a2) (a3), KENNETH A. DODGE (a4), MICHAEL RUTTER (a2), ALAN TAYLOR (a2) and LUCY A. TULLY (a2)...


Maltreatment places children at risk for psychiatric morbidity, especially conduct problems. However, not all maltreated children develop conduct problems. We tested whether the effect of physical maltreatment on risk for conduct problems was strongest among those who were at high genetic risk for these problems using data from the E-risk Study, a representative cohort of 1,116 5-year-old British twin pairs and their families. Children's conduct problems were ascertained via parent and teacher interviews. Physical maltreatment was ascertained via parent report. Children's genetic risk for conduct problems was estimated as a function of their co-twin's conduct disorder status and the pair's zygosity. The effect of maltreatment on risk for conduct problems was strongest among those at high genetic risk. The experience of maltreatment was associated with an increase of 2% in the probability of a conduct disorder diagnosis among children at low genetic risk for conduct disorder but an increase of 24% among children at high genetic risk. Prediction of behavioral pathology can attain greater accuracy if both pathogenic environments and genetic risk are ascertained. Certain genotypes may promote resistance to trauma. Physically maltreated children whose first-degree relatives engage in antisocial behavior warrant priority for therapeutic intervention.We are grateful to the Study mothers and fathers, the twins, and the twins' teachers for their participation. Our thanks to Robert Plomin for his contributions; to Thomas Achenbach for generous permission to adapt the CBCL; to Tom Price for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript; to Hallmark Cards for their support; and to members of the E-Risk team for their dedication, hard work, and insights. The E-Risk Study is funded by Medical Research Council Grant G9806489. Terrie Moffitt is a Royal Society–Wolfson Research Merit Award holder.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Sara Jaffee, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3720 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104; E-mail:


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