researchers develop a genetic screening test to predict children with impulsive behaviour

while spontaneity can be a good thing in our hyper-structured lives, chronic impulsivity has been linked to aggressive outbursts, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, addiction and suicide attempts.

is there a genetic test for impulsivity?
impulsivity is a complicated personality trait that is influenced, in part, by our genes. getty

researchers from mcgill university have developed a genetic screen to identify young children at risk of developing impulsive behaviours .

the research, published in molecular psychiatry , looked at a selection of genes which work together in specific areas of the developing brain that influence decision-making skills and emotional regulation. by focusing on the genes that are associated with the maturing brain in these areas, researchers were able to create a more accurate scale than those that focus on genetic markers linked to the behaviour.

“typically, genetic approaches to identifying the neurobiological signature for impulsivity (or any other condition or disease) tend to focus on identifying the variation in a few genetic markers that might be responsible for the problem,” said patricia pelufo silveira , senior co-author on the piece and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at mcgill. “we came at the problem from the opposite direction, by focusing on a gene known to be associated with the maturation of the brain in these two key areas and then looking for a network of other genes that were most closely associated with it.”

key to this research were pathways that involved netrin-1 — a protein called a “guidance cue,” that helps orchestrate the developing dopamine pathways in the prefrontal cortex — and dcc, its receptor. mutations in these genes have previously been associated with depression, schizophrenia, and substance use emerging in adolescence. put simply, the current understanding of these two genes is they help craft complex neural connections that form in childhood. when the genes that encode these proteins don’t work properly, critical pathways in the brain have difficulty forming.



the study created a genetic “score” based on genes involved in the netrin-1/dcc pathway, taking into account the size of the effect each gene would have on the developing neurons. by characterizing the network in this level of detail, researchers were better able to understand how this overall pathway may signal different neurodevelopmental processes.

genetic and behavioural information was sourced from three databases, based in canada , singapore and the u.k. — creating a large cohort (almost 6,000 data sets) pulled from geographically and ethnically diverse communities.

“the results underline the importance of data sharing and open science,” said cecilia flores, senior co-author on the paper and a professor in the department of psychiatry. “imagine if we had had to collect this information in all these countries over all these years. our discovery was only possible because we had access to all these data.”

but is being impulsive a bad thing?

impulsivity is a complicated personality trait that is influenced, in part, by our genes. although spontaneity from time to time can be seen as a good thing in our hyper-structured lives, chronic impulsivity has been linked to various psychiatric disorders and personality traits like aggressive outbursts, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, addiction and suicide attempts. individuals with impulsive behaviours often report feeling they don’t have control, and have to cope with the anxiety that comes with that fact.



identifying a genetic predisposition to impulsivity, then, can go a long way in helping at-risk children develop coping skills from the get-go.

possibly the most famous study on how impulsivity in childhood can help predict life outcomes is the stanford marshmallow experiment . in this study, researchers put a marshmallow in front of preschool-aged children and made them a deal: they could eat the marshmallow now, or if they waited, they would get two marshmallows to eat. over the next several decades researchers followed these kids, finding evidence that the kids who could delay gratification (wait to get the second marshmallow) would achieve higher sat scores, have better responses to stress, and have lower rates of substance abuse and obesity — among other lifelong benefits.

since the publication of the marshmallow study, researchers have tried to understand what can impact a child’s ability to delay gratification and reap the rewards later in life — from wealth and affluence  to being able to see the reward to learning skills and, of course, to genetics.

for those who are born with predispositions to impulsive behaviour, all is not lost. if the impulsivity is a part of a larger diagnosis, such as adhd or bipolar disorder, medications and targeted behavioural therapy can help provide structure. in general cases, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (ssris) and other antidepressant medications can also help with impulse control, according to webmd .



emma jones is a multimedia editor with healthing. you can reach her at or on instagram and twitter @jonesyjourn.
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