Here we describe the application of cognitive genetics to the study of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Cognitive genetics owes much to the pioneering work of cognitive neuropsychologists such as John Marshall, whose careful observations of cognitive dissociations between brain-lesioned patients greatly advanced the theoretical understanding of normal cognitive function. These theories have in turn helped to constrain linkages between candidate genes and cognitive processes and thus help to drive the relatively new field of cognitive genetics in a hypothesis-driven fashion. We examined the relationship between sustained attention deficits in ADHD and genetic variation in a catecholamine-related gene, dopamine beta hydroxylase (DbetaH). DBH encodes the enzyme that converts dopamine to noradrenaline and is crucial to catecholamine regulation. A polymorphism with the DBH gene has been associated with ADHD. In fifty-two children with ADHD, we examined whether variation in the Taq I DBH gene polymorphism was related to sustained attention performance. Participants performed the Sustained Attention to Response Test (SART). Performance on the SART discriminates ADHD from control children, and in imaging work, is associated with right frontoparietal activation. A significant effect of DBH genotype was found on SART performance measures. Children possessing two copies of the ADHD-associated risk allele (A2) had significantly poorer sustained attention than those ADHD children who did not possess this allele or a non-genotyped control group. The DBH gene may contribute to the susceptibility for ADHD, in part because of its varying effects on the development of brain mechanisms mediating sustained attention.
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