Editorial: A double-edged sword: advantages and disadvantages to the current emphasis on biogenetic causes of child psychopathology
S. Alexandra Burt
Research on child psychopathology is a largely biogenetic endeavor these days, at least according to current funding priorities at the National Institutes of Health in the US. This heavy focus on genetic contributions to child psychopathology has some real advantages. Available research has conclusively indicated that child and adolescent mental health problems are partially genetic in origin and, moreover, are related to neural structure and function (as an example, see Plomin et al.). Moreover, these genetic effects may be responsible for some previously reported ‘environmental’ effects, such that, what appear to be direct environmental risk factors may in fact reflect genetic/familial risks. As one example, Sengupta et al. (this issue) found that maternal smoking during pregnancy was in fact a marker of maternal and paternal psychopathology. Put another way, the association between ADHD and maternal smoking during pregnancy may index a genetic/familial risk for a more severe form of ADHD, rather than a direct effect of uterine exposure to cigarettes. A final, more subtle reason for the current trend towards biogenetic research is that it has the rarely-discussed but all-too-important ‘allure of the unknown’. We have only just recently been able to directly explore the biological underpinnings of psychopathology; and as technology advances, so too will the insights gained (presumably). This offers both funding agencies and individual scientists the very real possibility of making a major new discovery – a siren’s call for most of us. In sharp contrast, decades of research have explored putatively environmental contributions to child and adolescent psychopathology. New paradigm-shifting discoveries are thus likely to be fewer in number and farther between (if we continue using traditional study designs that omit joint consideration of biology, that is). In short, biogenetic research just feels more cutting edge at the moment. The clear merits of such work notwithstanding, there are a number of critical disadvantages to the current emphasis on genetics. These issues are presented below, not necessarily in order of importance.
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