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18 July 2023

Genetic overlap established between theta brain signals and ADHD

New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London has found a significant genetic association between disruption in theta brainwaves emerging from the prefrontal cortex and ADHD across the lifespan.

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The research, published in Biological Psychiatry, indicates a core dysregulation of the temporal coordination of cognitive control processes - crucial mental computations that help individuals stay on task when distractions are present - in adults with ADHD that persists in those whose symptoms developed in childhood and that this is driven by shared genetic pathways.

Cognitive control processes, including those measured by theta, are known to be impaired in those with psychiatric conditions, and neurodevelopmental diagnoses like ADHD and autism.

The study followed 566 participants (233 pairs of twins from the Twins’ Early Development Study (TEDS)). Parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire reporting on their children’s behavioural traits, while a brain scan was conducted later in young adulthood to test cognitive control signals, including frontal theta.

The study indicated continuity in those with ADHD symptoms throughout the lifespan, with genetic overlap between ADHD symptoms in childhood and an ADHD diagnosis in young adulthood. Furthermore, in confirmation of its role in the condition, there were strong genetic relationships between variability in reaction times and both childhood and adult ADHD.

“The results of this study are of great importance. Not only do we build upon previous work, but also demonstrate the significant genetic associations between dysregulation in theta signalling and ADHD. It’s vital that we continue to study this to establish the effects of functional impairment in people who received an ADHD diagnosis in childhood, and whether they retained that diagnosis in later life.”

Dr Gráinne McLoughlin a Senior Lecturer at King’s IoPPN and the study’s senior author

Researchers suggest that the findings suggest that dysregulated theta could indicate a biomarker for ADHD and might highlight a target for intervention in the condition.

Dr McLoughlin, said, “It can be easy to overlook how critical effective cognitive control is in our day-to-day lives, not only during our developmental years but also in adulthood. However, the diagnostic process takes significant time and resources. Our study suggests that, with a little more research, we could stratify patients with a simple brain scan.”

This study was possible thanks to research grants from the Medical Research Council and the US National Institutes of Health.


Genetic overlap between midfrontal theta signals and ADHD and ASD in a longitudinal twin cohort (DOI 10.1016/j.biopsych.2023.05.006) (Ümit Aydin, Máté Gyurkovics, Cedric Ginestet, Simone Capp, Corina U. Greven, Jason Palmer, Gráinne McLoughlin) was published in Biological Psychiatry.

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Graiine McLoughlin 2021-10-05 16.07.53

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