Alcohol-Related Genes Show an Enrichment of Associations With a Persistent Externalizing Factor

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Abstract

Research using twins has found that much of the variability in externalizing phenotypes—including alcohol and drug use, impulsive personality traits, risky sex, and property crime—is explained by genetic factors. Nevertheless, identification of specific genes and variants associated with these traits has proven to be difficult, likely because individual differences in externalizing are explained by many genes of small individual effect. Moreover, twin research indicates that heritable variance in externalizing behaviors is mostly shared across the externalizing spectrum rather than specific to any behavior. We use a longitudinal, “deep phenotyping” approach to model a general externalizing factor reflecting persistent engagement in a variety of socially problematic behaviors measured at 11 assessment occasions spanning early adulthood (ages 18 to 28). In an ancestrally homogenous sample of non-Hispanic Whites (N = 337), we then tested for enrichment of associations between the persistent externalizing factor and a set of 3,281 polymorphisms within 104 genes that were previously identified as associated with alcohol-use behaviors. Next, we tested for enrichment among domain-specific factors (e.g., property crime) composed of residual variance not accounted for by the common factor. Significance was determined relative to bootstrapped empirical thresholds derived from permutations of phenotypic data. Results indicated significant enrichment of genetic associations for persistent externalizing, but not for domain-specific factors. Consistent with twin research findings, these results suggest that genetic variants are broadly associated with externalizing behaviors rather than unique to specific behaviors.

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