Genetic Associations Between Executive Functions and a General Factor of Psychopathology

K. Paige Harden*, Laura E. Engelhardt, Frank D. Mann, Megan W. Patterson, Andrew D. Grotzinger, Stephanie L. Savicki, Megan L. Thibodeaux, Samantha M. Freis, Jennifer L. Tackett, Jessica A. Church, Elliot M. Tucker-Drob

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Objective: Symptoms of psychopathology covary across diagnostic boundaries, and a family history of elevated symptoms for a single psychiatric disorder places an individual at heightened risk for a broad range of other psychiatric disorders. Both twin-based and genome-wide molecular methods indicate a strong genetic basis for the familial aggregation of psychiatric disease. This has led researchers to prioritize the search for highly heritable childhood risk factors for transdiagnostic psychopathology. Cognitive abilities that involve the selective control and regulation of attention, known as executive functions (EFs), are a promising set of risk factors. Method: In a population-based sample of child and adolescent twins (n = 1,913, mean age = 13.1 years), we examined genetic overlap between both EFs and general intelligence (g) and a transdiagnostic dimension of vulnerability to psychopathology, comprising symptoms of anxiety, depression, neuroticism, aggression, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, hyperactivity, and inattention. Psychopathology symptoms in children were rated by children and their parents. Results: Latent factors representing general EF and g were highly heritable (h2 = 86%−92%), and genetic influences on both sets of cognitive abilities were robustly correlated with transdiagnostic genetic influences on psychopathology symptoms (genetic r values ranged from −0.20 to −0.38). Conclusion: General EF and g robustly index genetic risk for transdiagnostic symptoms of psychopathology in childhood. Delineating the developmental and neurobiological mechanisms underlying observed associations between cognitive abilities and psychopathology remains a priority for ongoing research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)749-758
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2020


  • executive functions
  • genetics
  • psychiatric comorbidity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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