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Illicit substance use is dangerous in both acute and chronic forms, frequently resulting in lethal poisoning, addiction, and other negative consequences. Similar to research in other psychiatric conditions, whose ultimate goal is to enable effective prevention and treatment, studies in substance use are focused on factors elevating the risk for the disorder. The rapid growth of the substance use problem despite the effort invested in fighting it, however, suggests the need in changing the research approach. Instead of attempting to identify risk factors, whose neutralization is often infeasible if not impossible, it may be more promising to systematically reverse the perspective to the factors enhancing the aspect of liability to disorder that shares the same dimension but is opposite to risk, that is, resistance to substance use. Resistance factors, which enable the majority of the population to remain unaffected despite the ubiquity of psychoactive substances, may be more amenable to translation. While the resistance aspect of liability is symmetric to risk, the resistance approach requires substantial changes in sampling (high-resistance rather than high-risk) and using quantitative indices of liability. This article provides an overview and a practical approach to research in resistance to substance use/addiction, currently implemented in a NIH-funded project. The project benefits from unique opportunities afforded by the data originating from two longitudinal twin studies, the Virginia Twin Study of Adolescent and Behavioral Development and the Minnesota Twin Family Study. The methodology described is also applicable to other psychiatric disorders.
The University of Minnesota has played an important role in the resurgence and eventual mainstreaming of human behavioral genetics in psychology and psychiatry. We describe this history in the context of three major movements in behavioral genetics: (1) radical eugenics in the early 20th century, (2) resurgence of human behavioral genetics in the 1960s, largely using twin and adoption designs to obtain more precise estimates of genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in behavior; and (3) use of measured genotypes to understand behavior. University of Minnesota scientists made significant contributions especially in (2) and (3) in the domains of cognitive ability, drug abuse and mental health, and endophenotypes. These contributions are illustrated through a historical perspective of major figures and events in behavioral genetics.
Alcohol use and dependence are strongly affected by variation in aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) and, to a lesser extent, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH1B) genes. We use this genetic variation with an adoption design to test the causal role of alcohol use on other drug use, as well as the moderating role of adoptive parent, sibling, and peer alcohol use. Longitudinal models were run on 412 genotyped adopted individuals of East Asian ancestry with multiple assessments between ages 14 and 40. We found robust associations between alcohol frequency, quantity, and maximum drinks and ALDH2, but not ADH1B, status. The magnitude of the ALDH2 protective effect increased with age, particularly for maximum drinks, though estimates were smaller than previously reported in ancestrally similar individuals in East/North-East Asian countries. These results suggest that sociocultural factors in Minnesota may reduce the protective effects of ALDH2. We found that peer alcohol use, but not parent or sibling use, predicted adopted offspring’s use, and that these environmental influences did not vary by ALDH2 status. Finally, we did not find strong evidence of associations between ALDH2 status and tobacco, marijuana, or illegal drug use, contrary to expectation if alcohol serves as a gateway to use of other drugs.
Twin studies demonstrate significant environmental influences and a lack of genetic effects on disordered eating before puberty in girls. However, genetic factors could act indirectly through passive gene–environment correlations (rGE; correlations between parents’ genes and an environment shaped by those genes) that inflate environmental (but not genetic) estimates. The only study to explore passive rGE did not find significant effects, but the full range of parental phenotypes (e.g., internalizing symptoms) that could impact daughters’ disordered eating was not examined. We addressed this gap by exploring whether parents’ internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depressive symptoms) contribute to daughters’ eating pathology through passive rGE. Participants were female twin pairs (aged 8–14 years; M = 10.44) in pre-early puberty and their biological parents (n = 279 families) from the Michigan State University Twin Registry. Nuclear twin family models explored passive rGE for parents’ internalizing traits/symptoms and twins’ overall eating disorder symptoms. No evidence for passive rGE was found. Instead, environmental factors that create similarities between co-twins (but not with their parents) and unique environmental factors were important. In pre-early puberty, genetic factors do not influence daughters’ disordered eating, even indirectly through passive rGE. Future research should explore sibling-specific and unique environmental factors during this critical developmental period.
Alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine use are highly comorbid and alarmingly prevalent in young adults. The hippocampus may be particularly sensitive to substance exposure. This remains largely untested in humans and familial risk may confound exposure effects. We extend prior work on alcohol and hippocampal volume in women by testing common and unique substance use effects and the potential moderating role of sex on hippocampal volume during emerging adulthood. A quasi-experimental cotwin control (CTC) design was used to separate familial risk from exposure consequences.
In a population-based sample of 435 24-year-old same-sex twins (58% women), dimensional measures (e.g. frequency, amount) of alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine use across emerging adulthood were assessed. Hippocampal volume was assessed using MRI.
Greater substance use was significantly associated with lower hippocampal volume for women but not men. The same pattern was observed for alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine. CTC analyses provided evidence that hippocampal effects likely reflected familial risk and the consequence of substance use in general and alcohol and nicotine in particular; cannabis effects were in the expected direction but not significant. Within-pair mediation analyses suggested that the effect of alcohol use on the hippocampus may reflect, in part, comorbid nicotine use.
The observed hippocampal volume deviations in women likely reflected substance-related premorbid familial risk and the consequences of smoking and, to a lesser degree, drinking. Findings contribute to a growing body of work suggesting heightened risk among women toward experiencing deleterious effects of substance exposure on the still-developing young adult hippocampus.
Recent well-powered genome-wide association studies have enhanced prediction of substance use outcomes via polygenic scores (PGSs). Here, we test (1) whether these scores contribute to prediction over-and-above family history, (2) the extent to which PGS prediction reflects inherited genetic variation v. demography (population stratification and assortative mating) and indirect genetic effects of parents (genetic nurture), and (3) whether PGS prediction is mediated by behavioral disinhibition prior to substance use onset.
PGSs for alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine use/use disorder were calculated for Minnesota Twin Family Study participants (N = 2483, 1565 monozygotic/918 dizygotic). Twins' parents were assessed for histories of substance use disorder. Twins were assessed for behavioral disinhibition at age 11 and substance use from ages 14 to 24. PGS prediction of substance use was examined using linear mixed-effects, within-twin pair, and structural equation models.
Nearly all PGS measures were associated with multiple types of substance use independently of family history. However, most within-pair PGS prediction estimates were substantially smaller than the corresponding between-pair estimates, suggesting that prediction is driven in part by demography and indirect genetic effects of parents. Path analyses indicated the effects of both PGSs and family history on substance use were mediated via disinhibition in preadolescence.
PGSs capturing risk of substance use and use disorder can be combined with family history measures to augment prediction of substance use outcomes. Results highlight indirect sources of genetic associations and preadolescent elevations in behavioral disinhibition as two routes through which these scores may relate to substance use.
To better characterize brain-based mechanisms of polygenic liability for psychopathology and psychological traits, we extended our previous report (Liu et al. Psychophysiological endophenotypes to characterize mechanisms of known schizophrenia genetic loci. Psychological Medicine, 2017), focused solely on schizophrenia, to test the association between multivariate psychophysiological candidate endophenotypes (including novel measures of θ/δ oscillatory activity) and a range of polygenic scores (PGSs), namely alcohol/cannabis/nicotine use, an updated schizophrenia PGS (containing 52 more genome-wide significant loci than the PGS used in our previous report) and educational attainment.
A large community-based twin/family sample (N = 4893) was genome-wide genotyped and imputed. PGSs were constructed for alcohol use, regular smoking initiation, lifetime cannabis use, schizophrenia, and educational attainment. Eleven endophenotypes were assessed: visual oddball task event-related electroencephalogram (EEG) measures (target-related parietal P3 amplitude, frontal θ, and parietal δ energy/inter-trial phase clustering), band-limited resting-state EEG power, antisaccade error rate. Principal component analysis exploited covariation among endophenotypes to extract a smaller number of meaningful dimensions/components for statistical analysis.
Endophenotypes were heritable. PGSs showed expected intercorrelations (e.g. schizophrenia PGS correlated positively with alcohol/nicotine/cannabis PGSs). Schizophrenia PGS was negatively associated with an event-related P3/δ component [β = −0.032, nonparametric bootstrap 95% confidence interval (CI) −0.059 to −0.003]. A prefrontal control component (event-related θ/antisaccade errors) was negatively associated with alcohol (β = −0.034, 95% CI −0.063 to −0.006) and regular smoking PGSs (β = −0.032, 95% CI −0.061 to −0.005) and positively associated with educational attainment PGS (β = 0.031, 95% CI 0.003–0.058).
Evidence suggests that multivariate endophenotypes of decision-making (P3/δ) and cognitive/attentional control (θ/antisaccade error) relate to alcohol/nicotine, schizophrenia, and educational attainment PGSs and represent promising targets for future research.
The Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research (MCTFR) comprises multiple longitudinal, community-representative investigations of twin and adoptive families that focus on psychological adjustment, personality, cognitive ability and brain function, with a special emphasis on substance use and related psychopathology. The MCTFR includes the Minnesota Twin Registry (MTR), a cohort of twins who have completed assessments in middle and older adulthood; the Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS) of twins assessed from childhood and adolescence into middle adulthood; the Enrichment Study (ES) of twins oversampled for high risk for substance-use disorders assessed from childhood into young adulthood; the Adolescent Brain (AdBrain) study, a neuroimaging study of adolescent twins; and the Siblings Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS), a study of adoptive and nonadoptive families assessed from adolescence into young adulthood. Here we provide a brief overview of key features of these established studies and describe new MCTFR investigations that follow up and expand upon existing studies or recruit and assess new samples, including the MTR Study of Relationships, Personality, and Health (MTR-RPH); the Colorado-Minnesota (COMN) Marijuana Study; the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study; the Colorado Online Twins (CoTwins) study and the Children of Twins (CoT) study.
Subclinical adolescent alcohol use is highly prevalent and may have deleterious effects on important psychosocial and brain outcomes. Prior research has focused on identifying endophenotypes of pathological drinking, and the predictors of normative drinking remain understudied. This study investigated the incremental predictive value of two potential psychophysiological endophenotypes, P3 amplitude (an index of decision making) and midfrontal theta power (a correlate of attentional control), for prospectively predicting the expression and initiation of alcohol use emerging in adolescence.
A large (N = 594) epidemiological sample was prospectively assessed at ages 11/14/17. Alcohol/substance use was assessed at all ages via a computerized self-report inventory. EEG was recorded at age-14 during a visual oddball task to elicit P3 and theta.
Reduced target-related P3 and theta at age-14 prospectively predicted drinking at age-17 independent of one another. Among alcohol-naive individuals at age-14, attenuated P3 and theta increased the odds of new-onset alcohol behaviors 3 years later. Importantly, the endophenotypes provided significant incremental predictive power of future non-clinical alcohol use beyond relevant risk factors (prior alcohol use; tobacco/illicit drug initiation; parental alcohol use disorder).
The current report is the first of our knowledge to demonstrate that deviations in parietal P3 and midfrontal theta prospectively predict the emergence of normative/non-pathological drinking. P3 and theta provide modest yet significant explanatory variance beyond prominent self-report and familial risk measures. Findings offer strong evidence supporting the predictive utility of P3 and theta as candidate endophenotypes for adolescent drinking.
Prior research has shown that person-level characteristics (e.g., temperament, personality) correlate and interact with social-contextual factors (e.g., parent–child relationship quality, antisocial peer affiliation) to predict adolescent substance use, but less research has examined similar processes for adult substance use problems. We addressed this gap by testing for personality × romantic partner context interplay in relation to symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD) at ages 24 and 29. Participants were twins in the longitudinal Minnesota Twin Family Study (N = 2,769; 52% female). Results support the corresponsive principle of personality in that we found that key personality traits in late adolescence (low constraint, negative emotionality) predicted subsequent “selection” into key social contexts in early adulthood (poorer quality romantic relationships and greater romantic partner alcohol use), which subsequently reinforced those traits and associated outcomes (including correlated AUD symptoms) through late young adulthood. There were few meaningful gender differences in these associations. There was also no support for the personality × romantic partner context interaction as a significant predictor of AUD symptoms at ages 24 or 29. Taken together with prior studies, these results suggest that such interactions may be less relevant to the development of young adult AUD compared to adolescent substance use problems.
Parental characteristics and practices predict borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms in children. However, it is difficult to disentangle whether these effects are genetically or environmentally mediated. The present study examines the contributions of genetic and environmental influences by comparing the effects of familial risk factors (i.e. parental psychopathology and borderline traits, maladaptive parenting, marital discord) on child BPD traits in genetically related (biological) and non-related (adoptive) families.
Data are from 409 adoptive and 208 biological families who participated in the Siblings Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS) and 580 twin families the Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS). Parent characteristics and practices included parental psychopathology (measured via structured clinical interviews), parental BPD traits, parenting behaviors, and marital discord. A series of multi-level regression models were estimated to examine the relationship of familial risk factors to child BPD traits and to test whether children's adoptive status moderated the association.
Symptom counts of parents' conduct disorder, adult antisocial behavior, nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drug dependence, and paternal BPD traits substantially predicted child BPD traits only in biological offspring, implying genetic transmission. Maternal BPD traits and both maternal and paternal conflict, lack of regard, and lack of involvement predicted offspring BPD traits regardless of the adoptive status, implying environmental transmission.
Parental externalizing psychopathology and father's BPD traits contribute genetic risk for offspring BPD traits, but mothers' BPD traits and parents' poor parenting constitute environmental risks for the development of these offspring traits.
Though theory suggests that individual differences in neuroticism (a tendency to experience negative emotions) would be associated with altered functioning of the amygdala (which has been linked with emotionality and emotion dysregulation in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood), results of functional neuroimaging studies have been contradictory and inconclusive. We aimed to clarify the relationship between neuroticism and three hypothesized neural markers derived from functional magnetic resonance imaging during negative emotion face processing: amygdala activation, amygdala habituation, and amygdala-prefrontal connectivity, each of which plays an important role in the experience and regulation of emotions. We used general linear models to examine the relationship between trait neuroticism and the hypothesized neural markers in a large sample of over 500 young adults. Although neuroticism was not significantly associated with magnitude of amygdala activation or amygdala habituation, it was associated with amygdala–ventromedial prefrontal cortex connectivity, which has been implicated in emotion regulation. Results suggest that trait neuroticism may represent a failure in top-down control and regulation of emotional reactions, rather than overactive emotion generation processes, per se. These findings suggest that neuroticism, which has been associated with increased rates of transdiagnostic psychopathology, may represent a failure in the inhibitory neurocircuitry associated with emotion regulation.
Previous research has shown that problematic parent–child, peer, and romantic partner relationships are associated with an increased likelihood for major depressive disorder (MDD). Less research has evaluated the developmental unfolding of how these interpersonal relationship features are both an antecedent versus a consequence of MDD symptoms from adolescence through young adulthood. These gaps were evaluated using a large community sample (N = 1,127; 54% female, 96% white) via a developmental cascade model. Results showed support for significant antecedent effects, as greater parent–child relationship problems at ages 11 and 17 predicted rank-order increases in MDD symptoms at ages 14 and 20. Supporting a developmental cascade of problematic social relationships, greater parent–child relationship problems at ages 11 and 14 also predicted greater subsequent rank-order increases in antisocial peer affiliation at ages 14 and 17. Greater affiliation to antisocial peers at age 20 predicted greater rank-order increases in romantic relationship problems at age 24, which in turn predicted greater MDD symptoms at age 29. Cross-effects were generally small (βs ≤ .16), illustrating other factors may be relevant to the development or consequences of MDD. Nonetheless, findings support the importance of efforts to strengthen social support networks to offset risk as well as potentially treat depression.
In the United States, cannabis accessibility has continued to rise as the perception of its harmfulness has decreased. Only about 30% of regular cannabis users develop cannabis use disorder (CUD), but it is unclear if individuals who use cannabis regularly without ever developing CUD experience notable psychosocial impairment across the lifespan. Therefore, psychosocial functioning was compared across regular cannabis users with or without CUD and a non-user control group during adolescence (age 17; early risk) and young adulthood (ages 18–25; peak CUD prevalence).
Weekly cannabis users with CUD (n = 311), weekly users without CUD (n = 111), and non-users (n = 996) were identified in the Minnesota Twin Family Study. Groups were compared on alcohol and illicit drug use, psychiatric problems, personality, and social functioning at age 17 and from ages 18 to 25. Self-reported cannabis use and problem use were independently verified using co-twin informant report.
In both adolescence and young adulthood, non-CUD users reported significantly higher levels of substance use problems and externalizing behaviors than non-users, but lower levels than CUD users. High agreement between self- and co-twin informant reports confirmed the validity of self-reported cannabis use problems.
Even in the absence of CUD, regular cannabis use was associated with psychosocial impairment in adolescence and young adulthood. However, regular users with CUD endorsed especially high psychiatric comorbidity and psychosocial impairment. The need for early prevention and intervention – regardless of CUD status – was highlighted by the presence of these patterns in adolescence.
Although there is extensive evidence that problematic alcohol use is associated with smaller hippocampal volume, the typical cross-sectional study design cannot determine whether hippocampal deviations reflect pre-existing liability toward problematic alcohol use or instead reflect an alcohol exposure-related effect. We used the co-twin control study design, which capitalizes upon differences within a twin pair in levels of drinking, to differentiate pre-existing liability from an effect of alcohol exposure.
The sample included 100 female twins, prospectively assessed from ages 11 to 24. Problematic alcohol use was assessed dimensionally and included indicators of quantity, frequency, and density of alcohol use and intoxication. Hippocampal volume was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging.
Problematic alcohol use (proximal and cumulative) was associated with significantly smaller left and right hippocampal volume. Follow-up co-twin control analyses that partitioned individual-level alcohol effects into pre-existing, familial liability and non-shared alcohol exposure-related effects indicated that this association reflected alcohol exposure. Greater alcohol using twins had smaller hippocampal volume relative to lesser alcohol using co-twins, beyond effects of their shared genetic and environmental liability toward problematic alcohol use. Results held accounting for recent alcohol use, other substance use, externalizing and internalizing psychopathology, personality traits, trauma exposure, and menstrual phase.
The association between problematic alcohol use and smaller hippocampal volume likely reflects an alcohol exposure-related effect. Differentiating pre-existing brain deviations that confer risk for problematic alcohol use from those that reflect effects of alcohol on the brain will inform etiological models of addiction and further prevention and intervention efforts.
Although borderline personality disorder (BPD) traits decline from adolescence to adulthood, comorbid psychopathology such as symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD), alcohol use disorder (AUD), and drug use disorders (DUDs) likely disrupt this normative decline. Using a longitudinal sample of female twins (N = 1,763), we examined if levels of BPD traits were correlated with changes in MDD, AUD, and DUD symptoms from ages 14 to 24. A parallel process biometric latent growth model examined the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to the relationships between developmental components of these phenotypes. Higher BPD trait levels predicted a greater rate of increase in AUD and DUD symptoms, and higher AUD and DUD symptoms predicted a slower rate of decline of BPD traits from ages 14 to 24. Common genetic influences accounted for the associations between BPD traits and each disorder, as well as the interrelationships of AUD and DUD symptoms. Both genetic and nonshared environmental influences accounted for the correlated levels between BPD traits and MDD symptoms, but solely environmental influences accounted for the correlated changes between the two over time. Results indicate that higher levels of BPD traits may contribute to an earlier onset and faster escalation of AUD and DUD symptoms, and substance use problems slow the normative decline in BPD traits. Overall, our data suggests that primarily genetic influences contribute to the comorbidity between BPD features and substance use disorder symptoms. We discuss our data in the context of two major theories of developmental psychopathology and comorbidity.
Previous research has established that parental marital discord is associated with higher levels of offspring externalizing behaviors, but it is unclear how parental relationship functioning is associated with the genetic and environmental variance on a factor of externalizing problems. Thus, the current study assessed how parental marital discord moderates genetic and environmental variance on offspring externalizing problems at two different ages: childhood and late adolescence. That is, the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on offspring externalizing at ages 11 and 17 was examined as a function of parental marital discord. Consistent with a diathesis–stress model of psychopathology, it was hypothesized that with increasing marital discord, genetic influences on externalizing would be more pronounced. Rather, results indicated that for the 11-year-old sample, nonshared environmental influences were greater when parental marital discord was low, and comparatively, shared environmental influences contributed more to the variance in externalizing problems when parental marital discord was high. No moderation was found for the 17-year-old cohort. In contrast to studies that do not find an effect of the shared environment, these results provide evidence that the common rearing environment has an impact on externalizing problems in preadolescent children.
Approximately half of the variation in wellbeing measures overlaps with variation in personality traits. Studies of non-human primate pedigrees and human twins suggest that this is due to common genetic influences. We tested whether personality polygenic scores for the NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) domains and for item response theory (IRT) derived extraversion and neuroticism scores predict variance in wellbeing measures. Polygenic scores were based on published genome-wide association (GWA) results in over 17,000 individuals for the NEO-FFI and in over 63,000 for the IRT extraversion and neuroticism traits. The NEO-FFI polygenic scores were used to predict life satisfaction in 7 cohorts, positive affect in 12 cohorts, and general wellbeing in 1 cohort (maximal N = 46,508). Meta-analysis of these results showed no significant association between NEO-FFI personality polygenic scores and the wellbeing measures. IRT extraversion and neuroticism polygenic scores were used to predict life satisfaction and positive affect in almost 37,000 individuals from UK Biobank. Significant positive associations (effect sizes <0.05%) were observed between the extraversion polygenic score and wellbeing measures, and a negative association was observed between the polygenic neuroticism score and life satisfaction. Furthermore, using GWA data, genetic correlations of -0.49 and -0.55 were estimated between neuroticism with life satisfaction and positive affect, respectively. The moderate genetic correlation between neuroticism and wellbeing is in line with twin research showing that genetic influences on wellbeing are also shared with other independent personality domains.