Genes may help identify children with future psychological problems

New research has found that children with a certain common gene variant were more likely to  develop serious problems as adults, potentially paving the way to personalized treatments for troubled children.

The study, from Duke University, draws on two decades’ worth of data on high-risk first-graders from four locations across the U.S.

"The findings are a step toward understanding the biology of what makes a child particularly sensitive to positive and negative environments," Dustin Albert, a research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, said in a press release. "This gives us an important clue about some of the children who need help the most."

Researchers found that children from high-risk backgrounds that carried the gene variant were most at risk for future problems. Of those with the gene variant, 75 percent developed psychological problems by age 25, including alcohol abuse, substance abuse and antisocial behavior.

However, when children with the gene variant were part of the Fast Track Project— a multi-faceted intervention for aggressive first-graders— only 17 percent developed psychopathology as adults.

"It's a hopeful finding," Albert said. "The children we studied were very susceptible to stress. But far from being doomed, they were instead particularly responsive to help."

The Fast Track Project began in 1991. After screening nearly 10,000 kindergartners in North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Washington state, researchers identified nearly 900 who were at high risk.  Half of those children received intensive help. The project was the largest violence-prevention trial to be supported by the National Institutes of Health.

These latest findings suggest that genome differences may be responsible to children’s different levels of sensitivity. According to Albert, this could be the first step toward potential personalized treatments for troubled children.

However, Albert noted that the new study was limited to white children, specifically 60 white children with a common variant of the glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1, a gene involved in the body's stress response.

Study authors have yet to find a similar genetic clue in children of other ethnicities that would help identify which of these children best responded to intervention, but that does not mean the genetic markers do not exist, researchers said.

"It would be premature to use this finding to screen children to determine who should receive intervention," Albert said. "A lot more work needs to be done before we decide whether or not to make that leap."