November 1, 2021

Two nationwide population studies on opposite sides of the world confirm links between autoimmune diseases and ADHD, suggest they are from genetic co-aggregation

Both Taiwan and Sweden have universal single-payer health insurance systems that in effect track their entire national populations. With detailed health and other records on millions of individuals, with no significant exclusions, one can essentially eliminate sampling error, and also explore how associations vary by degree of familial/genetic relationship.

A Taiwanese research team used the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database to follow 708,517 family triads (father-mother-child) from 2001 through 2011. That's a total of over 2.1 million persons. The database covers over 99% of Taiwan's population.

Noting that previous studies had found links between maternal autoimmune diseases and ADHD in their offspring and that research on associations with paternal autoimmune diseases had been inconclusive, they were particularly interested in exploring the latter.

Children born from 2001 through 2008 were enrolled in the study. The investigators then noted the presence or absence of any autoimmune disease in their parents from 1996 through childbirth.

In Taiwan, expert panels review diagnostic information of severe systemic autoimmune diseases to confirm the diagnosis. Once confirmed, patient co-payments are waived. ADHD diagnoses are by board-certified psychiatrists.

To reduce the effect of confounding variables, adjustments were made for family demographic data (income level and residence), parental ages, parental mental disorders, and sex of children.

The presence of any maternal autoimmune diseases was associated with a 60% greater risk of ADHD in offspring. The risk was especially elevated for inflammatory bowel diseases (2.4 times the risk) and ankylosing spondylitis (twice the risk).

The presence of any paternal autoimmune diseases was also associated with an elevated risk of ADHD in offspring, although only about half as much as for maternal autoimmune diseases, with a 33% greater risk overall. The association was especially pronounced for psoriasis and ankylosing spondylitis, both doubling the risk of ADHD in offspring.

Meanwhile, half a world away, a joint Swedish, Norwegian, and U.S. team used the Swedish national registries to dig further into these associations. They did this by examining data not only from mothers and fathers, but from full siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well, to probe genetic links.

The team used the Swedish registers to identify 5,178,225 individuals born in Sweden between 1960 and 2010 for whom the identity of the biological mother was known, excluding all who died or emigrated before age 10. They then used the registers to identify the aforementioned relatives.

The researchers only included autoimmune diseases with at least two thousand diagnosed individuals in the cohort, to avoid small sample effects.

They adjusted for sex and year of birth, but not "for another covariate that is often adjusted for (e.g. maternal education, family income, parental psychiatric disorder, parental AD [autoimmune disease] as these are likely not true confounders of the association between ADHD and ADD, but may rather represent either mediator between ADHD and AD's, or proxies of ADHD and/or AD risk or alternatively proxies for the associations we aim to measure."

The team found statistically significant associations between ADHD and autoimmune diseases in all categories of relatives. Mothers of children with ADHD were 29% more likely to have an autoimmune disease than those of typically developing children; fathers were 14% more likely to have an autoimmune disease; full siblings 19% more likely; aunts 12% more likely; uncles 7% more likely; and cousins 4% more likely.

Quantitative genetic modeling produced a significant genetic correlation, but no significant environmental correlation. Genetic correlation explained most, if not all, the covariance between ADHD and any autoimmune disease.

The authors concluded, "ADHD was to some degree more strongly associated with maternal than paternal AD's, but by using aunts and uncles in a genetically informative study design, we demonstrate that this difference cannot be readily explained by AD-mediated maternal effects. Quantitative genetic modeling further indicates that the familial co-aggregation of ADHD and ADs is partly due to shared genetic factors. In addition, biological aunts, uncles, and cousins must be assumed to share the little environment with the index individuals, in further support of shared genetic factors underlying the familial co-aggregation. Moreover, both epidemiological and molecular genetics studies have demonstrated positive genetic correlations between ADHD and ADs, in agreement with our findings."

The authors emphasize that these results do not warrant screening for autoimmune diseases among asymptomatic individuals with ADHD.

Tor-Arne Hegvik, Qi Chen, Ralf Kuja-Halkola, Kari Klungsøyr, Agnieszka Butwicka, Paul Lichtenstein, Catarina Almqvist, Stephen V Faraone, Jan Haavik, Henrik Larsson. "Familial co-aggregation of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autoimmune diseases: a cohort study based on Swedish population-wide registers," International Journal of epidemiology (2021), published online,

Hsuan Lee, Ju-Wei Hsu, Shih-Jen Tsai, Kai-Lin Huang, Ya-MeiBai, Tung-Png Su, Tzeng-Ji Chen, Mu-Hong Chen, "Risk of attention deficit hyperactivity and autism spectrum disorders among the children of parents with autoimmune diseases: a nationwide birth cohort study," European Child &Adolescent Psychiatry (2021), published online,

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