Environmental adversity and increasing genetic risk for externalizing disorders

Brian M. Hicks, Susan C. South, Ana C. DiRago, William G. Iacono, Matt McGue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

174 Scopus citations


Context: Studies of gene-environment interplay in the development of psychiatric and substance use disorders are rapidly accumulating. However, few attempts have been made to integrate findings and to articulate general mechanisms of gene-environment influence in the emergence of psychopathology. Objective: To identify patterns of gene-environment interplay between externalizing disorders (antisocial behavior and substance use) and several environmental risk factors. Design: We used quantitative genetic models to examine how genetic and environmental risk for externalizing disorders changes as a function of environmental context. Setting: Participants were recruited from the community and took part in a daylong assessment at a university laboratory. Participants: The sample consisted of 1315 male and female twin pairs participating in the assessment of the Minnesota Twin Family Study at age 17 years. Main Outcome Measures: Multiple measures and informants were used to construct a composite of externalizing disorders and composite measures of 6 environmental risk factors, including academic achievement and engagement, antisocial and prosocial peer affiliations, mother-child and father-child relationship problems, and stressful life events. Results: A significant gene x environment interaction was detected between each environmental risk factor and externalizing such that greater environmental adversity was associated with increased genetic risk for externalizing. Conclusions: In the context of environmental adversity, genetic factors become more important in the etiology of externalizing disorders. The consistency of the results further suggests a general mechanism of environmental influence on externalizing disorders regardless of the specific form of the environmental risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)640-648
Number of pages9
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009


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