A Century of Behavioral Genetics at the University of Minnesota

Emily A. Willoughby, Alexandros Giannelis, William G. Iacono, Matt McGue, Scott I. Vrieze

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The University of Minnesota has played an important role in the resurgence and eventual mainstreaming of human behavioral genetics in psychology and psychiatry. We describe this history in the context of three major movements in behavioral genetics: (1) radical eugenics in the early 20th century, (2) resurgence of human behavioral genetics in the 1960s, largely using twin and adoption designs to obtain more precise estimates of genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in behavior; and (3) use of measured genotypes to understand behavior. University of Minnesota scientists made significant contributions especially in (2) and (3) in the domains of cognitive ability, drug abuse and mental health, and endophenotypes. These contributions are illustrated through a historical perspective of major figures and events in behavioral genetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-225
Number of pages15
JournalTwin Research and Human Genetics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 3 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
MISTRA had continuous problems with funding; despite multiple requests to the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health, Bouchard was mostly unsuccessful. One grant reviewer noted that ‘rejection is the only intellectually defensible course for NSF’ (Segal, ). In the late 1970s, behavioral genetic research was still viewed with suspicion. Eventually, MISTRA obtained funding from a number of sources, primarily from the Koch Charitable Foundation, the Tufts University Nutrition and Aging Laboratory, and the University of Minnesota Periodontal Group. Donations were made by many other private funds, one of which was the Pioneer Fund, an organization with an explicitly eugenicist orientation. The Pioneer Fund had funded other seminal behavioral genetic studies, such as the Texas Adoption Project, but also research on race differences. As Lykken put it, ‘the argument was that we could take bad money and do good things with it’. Gottesman added: ‘The Pioneer Fund got no reinforcement for any ideas about race differences in behavior because race never entered this project’ (Segal, ). MISTRA was eventually discontinued in 2006, partly due to lack of funding.

Funding Information:
Roy Pickens, a behaviorist who had joined the Minnesota psychiatry faculty in 1966, became interested in the variability in drug abuse he observed while consulting for the alcohol/drug treatment facility Hazelden in the late 1970s. This curiosity prompted him to begin investigating the genetic influence on drug dependence in twin pairs from treatment facilities across Minnesota (Katz et al., ). In 1986, with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Lykken, Matt McGue, and Bill Iacono expanded this early twin research by founding the Minnesota Twin Family Study, which has been expanded and maintained to the present day by McGue and Iacono (Wilson et al., ). Now referred to under the umbrella of the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research (MCTFR), the Center maintains ongoing cohorts of 10,000+ participants from nuclear families with twin or adoptive offspring. The offspring were first recruited as adolescents and followed longitudinally, allowing developmentally informed studies of prospective relationships. Hundreds of papers have been published, but here we focus on a few major findings related to common forms of drug abuse (nicotine, alcohol and marijuana) and mental illness (e.g., antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety, ADHD).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of International Society for Twin Studies.


  • Behavior genetics
  • University of Minnesota
  • adoption
  • history
  • psychology
  • twins


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