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Is genetic liability to ADHD and ASD causally linked to educational attainment?

By Christina Dardani, Beate Leppert, Lucy Riglin, Dheeraj Rai, Laura D Howe, George Davey-Smith, Kate Tilling, Anita Thapar, Neil M Davies, Emma Anderson, Evie Stergiakouli

Posted 12 Feb 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.02.11.944041

Background: Individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are at risk of poor educational outcomes. Parental educational attainment has also been associated with risk of ADHD/ASD in the offspring. Despite evidence that ADHD and ASD show genetic links to educational attainment, less is known on the causal nature of the associations and the possible role of IQ. Methods: We assessed the total causal effects of genetic liability to ADHD/ASD on educational attainment using two-sample Mendelian randomization (MR). We assessed the possible contribution of IQ to the identified causal effects by estimating the direct effects of ADHD/ASD on educational attainment, independent of IQ, using Multivariable MR (MVMR). Reverse direction analyses were performed. The latest GWAS meta-analyses of ADHD, ASD, educational attainment and IQ were used. Causal effect estimates were generated using inverse variance weighted models (IVW). Sensitivity analyses were performed to assess the robustness of the estimates and the presence of pleiotropy. Results: Genetic liability to ADHD had a total (MRIVW:-3.3 months per doubling of liability to ADHD; 95%CI: -4.8 to -1.9; pval= 5*10-6) and direct negative causal effect on educational attainment (MVMRIVW:-1.6 months per doubling of liability to ADHD; 95%CI: -2.5 to -0.6; pval= 4*10-4). There was little evidence of a total causal effect of genetic liability to ASD on educational attainment (MRIVW: 4 days, per doubling of liability to ASD; 95%CI: -4.9 months to 5.6 months; pval= 0.9) but some evidence of a direct effect not via IQ (MVMRIVW:29 days per doubling the genetic liability to ASD; 95%CI: 2 to 48; pval= 0.03). Reverse direction analyses suggested that genetic liability to higher educational attainment was associated with lower risk of ADHD (MRIVWOR: 0.3 per standard deviation (SD) increase; 95%CI: 0.26 to 0.36; pval= 6*10-51), even after IQ was entered in the models (MVMRIVWOR: 0.33 per SD increase; 95%CI: 0.26 to 0.43; pval= 6*10-17). On the contrary, there was evidence consistent with a positive causal effect of genetic liability to higher educational attainment on risk of ASD (MRIVWOR: 1.51 per SD increase; 95%CI: 1.29 to 1.77; pval= 4*10-7), which was found to be largely explained by IQ (MVMRIVWOR per SD increase: 1.24; 95%CI: 0.96 to 1.60; pval= 0.09). Conclusions: Our findings suggest that despite the genetic and phenotypic overlap between ADHD and ASD, they present highly differentiated causal associations with educational attainment. This highlights the necessity for specialized educational interventions for children with ADHD and ASD. Further research is needed in order to decipher whether the identified causal effects reflect parentally transmitted effects, diagnostic masking, or selection bias.

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