Many of the individual differences in cognition, motivation, and learning—and the disruption of these processes in neurological conditions—are influenced by genetic factors. We provide an integrative synthesis across human and animal studies, focusing on a recent spate of evidence implicating a role for genes controlling dopaminergic function in frontostriatal circuitry, including COMT, DARPP-32, DAT1, DRD2, and DRD4. These genetic effects are interpreted within theoretical frameworks developed in the context of the broader cognitive and computational neuroscience literature, constrained by data from pharmacological, neuroimaging, electrophysiological, and patient studies. In this framework, genes modulate the efficacy of particular neural computations, and effects of genetic variation are revealed by assays designed to be maximally sensitive to these computations. We discuss the merits and caveats of this approach and outline a number of novel candidate genes of interest for future study.
genetics; cognition; learning; basal ganglia; prefrontal cortex; dopamine; cognition; dopamine; neurogenetics; learning & memory; basal ganglia; prefrontal cortex
It is well-known that children show gradual and protracted improvement in an array of behaviors involved in the conscious control of thought and emotion. Non-invasive neuroimaging in developing populations has revealed many neural correlates of behavior, particularly in the developing cingulate cortex and fronto-striatal circuits. These brain regions, themselves, undergo protracted molecular and cellular change in the first two decades of human development and, as such, are ideal regions of interest for cognitive- and imaging-genetic studies that seek to link processes at the biochemical and synaptic levels to brain activity and behavior. We review our research to-date that employs both adult and child-friendly versions of the Attention Network Task (ANT) in an effort to begin to describe the role of specific genes in the assembly of a functional attention system. Presently, we constrain our predictions for genetic association studies by focusing on the role of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and of dopamine in the development of executive attention.
One current conceptualization of attention subdivides it into functions of alerting, orienting, and executive control. Alerting describes the function of tonically maintaining the alert state and phasically responding to a warning signal. Automatic and voluntary orienting are involved in the selection of information among multiple sensory inputs. Executive control describes a set of more complex operations that includes monitoring and resolving conflicts in order to control thoughts or behaviors. Converging evidence supports this theory of attention by showing that each function appears to be subserved by anatomically distinct networks in the brain and differentially innervated by various neuromodulatory systems. Although much research has been dedicated to understanding the functional separation of these networks in both healthy and disease states, the interaction and integration among these networks still remain unclear. In this study, we aimed to characterize possible behavioral interaction and integration in healthy adult volunteers using a revised attentional network test (ANT-R) with cue-target interval and cue validity manipulations. We found that whereas alerting improves overall response speed, it exerts negative influence on executive control under certain conditions. A valid orienting cue enhances but an invalid cue diminishes the ability of executive control to overcome conflict. The results support the hypothesis of functional integration and interaction of these brain networks.
attention; attentional networks; alerting; orienting; executive control
Brain imaging genetic research involves a multitude of methods and spans many traditional levels of analysis. Given the vast permutations among several million common genetic variants with thousands of brain tissue voxels and a wide array of cognitive tasks that activate specific brain systems, we are prompted to develop specific hypotheses that synthesize converging evidence and state clear predictions about the anatomical sources, magnitude and direction (increases vs. decreases) of allele- and task-specific brain activity associations. To begin to develop a framework for shaping our imaging genetic hypotheses, we focus on previous results and the wider imaging genetic literature. Particular emphasis is placed on converging evidence that links system-level and biochemical studies with models of synaptic function. In shaping our own imaging genetic hypotheses on the development of Attention Networks, we review relevant literature on core models of synaptic physiology and development in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Children show gradual and protracted improvement in an array of behaviors involved in the conscious control of thought and emotion. Behavioral research has shown that these abilities, collectively referred to as executive functions (EF), can be dissociated into separable processes, such as inhibition and working memory. Furthermore, noninvasive neuroimaging shows that these component processes often rely on separable neural circuits involving areas of the frontal cortex and nuclei of the basal ganglia. As additional noninvasive methodologies become available, it is increasingly possible to continue to dissect and dissociate components of EF and also test predictions made by a number of theoretical neuroanatomical models. One method of late is genetics, which is noninvasive and readily used in concert with neuroimaging. The biological data obtained with neuroimaging and genetics is particularly able to inform neuroanatomical models that link specific brain systems with higher more abstract process models derived from purely behavioral work. As much progress in this area continues to occur, we seek to evaluate the age dependency and manner in which certain aspects of EF and certain anatomical circuits show changes and interactions as children develop. Some examples are taken from research on children with the developmental disability attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A review of selected developmental research shows that current cognitive and neuroanatomical models of EF offer a great many system- and synaptic-level hypotheses that can be tested using imaging and imaging genetics in longitudinal and cross-sectional study designs. Here, we focus on age-related changes in inhibition and working memory.
imaging-genetic strategies; executive function; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Alexithymia is a personality trait characterized by deficiency in understanding, processing, or describing emotions. Recent studies have revealed that alexithymia is associated with less activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region shown to play a role in cognitive and emotional processing. However, few studies have directly investigated the cognitive domain in relation to alexithymia to examine whether alexithymic trait is related to less efficient voluntary control.
Methodology/ Principal Findings
We examined the relationship between alexithymic trait and voluntary control in a group of healthy volunteers. We used the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) to measure alexithymic trait. Additionally, we examined state and trait voluntary control using the revised Attention Network Test (ANT-R) and the Adult Temperament Questionnaire (ATQ), respectively. Alexithymic trait was positively correlated with the overall reaction time of the ANT-R, and negatively correlated with the Effortful Control factor of the ATQ.
Our results suggest that alexithymic trait is associated with less efficient voluntary control.
Fluid intelligence (gf) influences performance across many cognitive domains. It is affected by both genetic and environmental factors. Tasks tapping gf activate a network of brain regions including the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), the presupplementary motor area/anterior cingulate cortex (pre-SMA/ACC), and the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). In line with the “intermediate phenotype” approach, we assessed effects of a polymorphism (val158met) in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene on activity within this network and on actual task performance during spatial and verbal gf tasks. COMT regulates catecholaminergic signaling in prefrontal cortex. The val158 allele is associated with higher COMT activity than the met158 allele. Twenty-two volunteers genotyped for the COMT val158met polymorphism completed high and low gf versions of spatial and verbal problem-solving tasks. Our results showed a positive effect of COMT val allele load upon the blood oxygen level–dependent response in LPFC, pre-SMA/ACC, and IPS during high gf versus low gf task performance in both spatial and verbal domains. These results indicate an influence of the COMT val158met polymorphism upon the neural circuitry supporting gf. The behavioral effects of val allele load differed inside and outside the scanner, consistent with contextual modulation of the relation between COMT val158met genotype and gf task performance.
COMT; fMRI; g; genotype; intelligence; prefrontal cortex
Cortical neurotransmitter availability is known to exert domain-specific effects on cognitive performance. Hence, normal variation in genes with a role in neurotransmission may also have specific effects on cognition. We tested this hypothesis by examining associations between polymorphisms in genes affecting cholinergic and noradrenergic neurotransmission and individual differences in visuospatial attention. Healthy individuals were administered a cued visual search task which varied the size of precues to the location of a target letter embedded in a 15-letter array. Cues encompassed 1, 3, 9, or 15 letters. Search speed increased linearly with precue size, indicative of a spatial attentional scaling mechanism. The strength of attentional scaling increased progressively with the number of C alleles (0, 1, or 2) of the alpha-4 nicotinic receptor gene C1545T polymorphism (n = 104). No association was found for the dopamine beta hydroxylase gene G444A polymorphism (n = 135). These findings point to the specificity of genetic neuromodulation. Whereas variation in a gene linked to cholinergic transmission systematically modulated the ability to scale the focus of visuospatial attention, variation in a gene governing dopamine availability did not. The results show that normal variation in a gene controlling a nicotinic receptor makes a selective contribution to individual differences in visuospatial attention.
A cued, visuospatial attention task and a working memory task were administered to 89 healthy adults genotyped for a T-to-C polymorphism in CHRNA4, a nicotinic receptor subunit gene. Increasing gene dose of the C allele of the CHRNA4 gene (i.e., no C alleles, one C allele, two C alleles) was associated with increased reaction time (RT) benefits of valid attentional cuing and reduced RT costs of invalid cues, but was not associated with working memory performance. In a second experiment, 103 healthy persons were genotyped for a G-to-A polymorphism of the dopamine beta-hydroxylase (DBH) gene. Increasing gene dose of the G allele of the DBH gene was associated with increased working memory accuracy at a high memory load. However, there was no consistent association between the DBH gene and visuospatial attention. Thus, a double dissociation was observed, with visuospatial attention associated with CHRNA4 but not the DBH gene and, conversely, working memory associated with the DBH gene but not CHRNA4. The results show that normal allelic variations in single neurotransmitter genes modulate individual differences in processing components of cognitive functions in healthy individuals.
Current efforts to study the genetic underpinnings of higher brain functions have been lacking appropriate phenotypes to describe cognition. One of the problems is that many cognitive concepts for which there is a single word (e.g. attention) have been shown to be related to several anatomical networks. Recently, we have developed an Attention Network Test (ANT) that provides a separate measure for each of three anatomically defined attention networks.
In this study we have measured the efficiency of neural networks related to aspects of attention using the ANT in a population of 200 adult subjects. We then examined genetic polymorphisms in four candidate genes (DRD4, DAT, COMT and MAOA) that have been shown to contribute to the risk of developing various psychiatric disorders where attention is disrupted. We find modest associations of several polymorphisms with the efficiency of executive attention but not with overall performance measures such as reaction time.
These results suggest that genetic variation may underlie inter-subject variation in the efficiency of executive attention. This study also shows that genetic influences on executive attention may be specific to certain anatomical networks rather than affecting performance in a global or non-specific manner. Lastly, this study further validates the ANT as an endophenotypic assay suitable for assessing how genes influence certain anatomical networks that may be disrupted in various psychiatric disorders.
Current efforts to study the genetics of higher functions have been lacking appropriate phenotypes to describe cognition. One of the problems is that many cognitive concepts for which there is a single word (e.g. attention) have been shown to be related to several anatomical networks. Recently we have developed an Attention Network Test (ANT) that provides a separate measure for each of three anatomically defined attention networks. In this small scale study, we ran 26 pairs of MZ and DZ twins in an effort to determine if any of these networks show sufficient evidence of heritability to warrant further exploration of their genetic basis.
The efficiency of the executive attention network, that mediates stimulus and response conflict, shows sufficient heritability to warrant further study. Alerting and overall reaction time show some evidence for heritability and in our study the orienting network shows no evidence of heritability.
These results suggest that genetic variation contributes to normal individual differences in higher order executive attention involving dopamine rich frontal areas including the anterior cingulate. At least the executive portion of the ANT may serve as a valid endophenotype for larger twin studies and subsequent molecular genetic analysis in normal subject populations.