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Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Sep 1;173(9):903-10. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15111381. Epub 2016 Apr 8.

Heritable and Nonheritable Pathways to Early Callous-Unemotional Behaviors.

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From the Department of Psychology, the Center for Human Growth and Development, and the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the Department of Psychology, Wayne State University, Detroit; the Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh; the Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; the Department of Psychology, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; the Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; and the Prevention Science Institute, University of Oregon, Eugene.



Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood signal higher risk for trajectories of antisocial behavior and callous-unemotional traits that culminate in later diagnoses of conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy. Studies demonstrate high heritability of callous-unemotional traits, but little research has examined specific heritable pathways to early callous-unemotional behaviors. Studies also indicate that positive parenting protects against the development of callous-unemotional traits, but genetically informed designs have not been used to confirm that these relationships are not the product of gene-environment correlations. In a sample of adopted children and their biological and adoptive mothers, the authors tested novel heritable and nonheritable pathways to preschool callous-unemotional behaviors.


In an adoption cohort of 561 families, history of severe antisocial behavior assessed in biological mothers and observations of adoptive mother positive reinforcement at 18 months were examined as predictors of callous-unemotional behaviors at 27 months.


Despite limited or no contact with offspring, biological mother antisocial behavior predicted early callous-unemotional behaviors. Adoptive mother positive reinforcement protected against early callous-unemotional behaviors. High levels of adoptive mother positive reinforcement buffered the effects of heritable risk for callous-unemotional behaviors posed by biological mother antisocial behavior.


The findings elucidate heritable and nonheritable pathways to early callous-unemotional behaviors. The results provide a specific heritable pathway to callous-unemotional behaviors and compelling evidence that parenting is an important nonheritable factor in the development of callous-unemotional behaviors. The finding that positive reinforcement buffered heritable risk for callous-unemotional behaviors has important translational implications for the prevention of trajectories to serious antisocial behavior.

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