Psychological Medicine

Prenatal life and post-natal psychopathology: evidence for negative gene–birth weight interaction

M. C.  WICHERS  a1, S.  PURCELL  a1, M.  DANCKAERTS  a1, C.  DEROM  a1, R.  DEROM  a1, R.  VLIETINCK  a1 and J.  VAN OS  a1 c1
a1 Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands; Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Research Centre and Division of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, London; and Department of Child Psychiatry, University Hospital Gasthuisberg, and Centre for Human Genetics, Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium


Background. Many studies suggest that pregnancy and birth complications (PBCs) are environmental risk factors for child psychopathology. However, it is not known whether the effects of PBCs occur independently of genetic predisposition. The current study examined the possibility of gene–environment interaction in a twin design.

Method. The East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey prospectively records the births of all twin pairs born in East Flanders, Belgium. The current study included 760 twin pairs aged 6–17 years. Multilevel regression analysis was used to assess the effects of several PBCs collected around the time of birth. Using structural equation modelling, ACE models assuming additive genetic (A), shared environmental (C) and unique environmental (E) influences, were compared in order to examine whether the contribution of genetic factors to parent-rated child problem behaviour varied as a function of exposure to dichotomously and continuously defined PBCs.

Results. A main independent effect of lower birth weight, corrected for gestational age (small for gestational age – SGA), on child problem behaviour was found. In addition, there was an interaction between genetic influence and SGA, in that being smaller for gestational age resulted in less influence of additive genetic factors on individual differences in problem behaviour.

Conclusions. Results are suggestive of negative gene–birth weight interaction. Children who are SGA are less sensitive to the genetic effects, and those with high genetic vulnerability are less sensitive to the effects of being SGA in bringing about post-natal mental health effects.

c1 Address for correspondence: Professor Jim Van Os, Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, European Graduate School of Neuroscience, PO Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands.