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Gene × environment interactions for ADHD: synergistic effect of 5HTTLPR genotype and youth appraisals of inter-parental conflict

Molly Nikolas1*, Karen Friderici2, Irwin Waldman3, Katherine Jernigan2 and Joel T Nigg4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

2 Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

3 Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

4 Department of Psychiatry, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon, USA

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Behavioral and Brain Functions 2010, 6:23  doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-23

Published: 16 April 2010



Serotonin genes have been hypothesized to play a role in the etiology of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); prior work suggests that serotonin may interact with psychosocial stressors in ADHD, perhaps via mechanisms involved in emotional dysregulation. Because the development of behavioral and emotional regulation depends heavily both on the child's experience within the family context and the child's construals of that experience, children's appraisals of inter-parental conflict are a compelling candidate potentiator of the effects of variation within the serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism (5HTTLPR) on liability for ADHD.


304 youth from the local community underwent a multi-informant diagnostic assessment procedure to identify ADHD cases and non-ADHD controls. Youth also completed the Children's Perception of Inter-Parental Conflict (CPIC) scale to assess appraisals of self-blame in relation to their parents' marital disputes. The trialleic configuration of 5HTTLPR (long/short polymorphism with A> G substitution) was genotyped and participants were assigned as having high (La/La N = 78), intermediate (La/Lg, La/short, N = 137), or low (Lg/Lg, Lg/short, short/short, N = 89) serotonin transporter activity genotypes. Teacher reported behavior problems were examined as the target outcome to avoid informant overlap for moderator and outcome measures.


Hierarchical linear regression analyses indicated significant 5HTTLPR × self-blame interactions for ADHD symptoms. Examination of the interactions indicated positive relations between reports of self-blame and ADHD symptoms for those with the high and low serotonin activity genotypes. There was no relation between self-blame and ADHD for those with intermediate activity 5HTTLPR genotypes.


Both high and low serotonergic activity may exert risk for ADHD when coupled with psychosocial distress such as children's self-blame in relation to inter-parental conflict. Results are discussed in relation to the role of serotonin in the etiology of the ADHD and related externalizing behaviors.