Body weight is substantially determined by eating behaviors, which are themselves driven by biological factors interacting with the environment. Previous studies in young children suggest that genetic influences on dopamine function may confer differential susceptibility to the environment in such a way that increases behavioral obesity risk in a lower socioeconomic status (SES) environment but decreases it in a higher SES environment. We aimed to test if this pattern of effect could also be observed in adolescence, another critical period for development in brain and behavior, using a novel measure of predicted expression of the dopamine receptor 4 (DRD4) gene in prefrontal cortex. In a sample of 76 adolescents (37 boys and 39 girls from Baltimore, Maryland/US, aged 14-18y), we estimated individual levels of DRD4 gene expression (PredDRD4) in prefrontal cortex from individual genomic data using PrediXcan, and tested interactions with a composite SES score derived from their annual household income, maternal education, food insecurity, perceived resource availability, and receipt of public assistance. Primary outcomes were snack intake during a multi-item ad libitum meal test, and food-related impulsivity assessed using a food-adapted go/ no-go task. A linear regression model adjusted for sex, BMI z-score, and genetic ethnicity demonstrated a PredDRD4 by composite SES score interaction for snack intake (p = 0.009), such that adolescents who had lower PredDRD4 levels exhibited greater snack intake in the lower SES group, but lesser snack intake in the higher SES group. Exploratory analysis revealed a similar pattern for scores on the Perceived Stress Scale (p = 0.001) such that the low PredDRD4 group reported higher stress in the lower SES group, but less stress in the higher SES group, suggesting that PredDRD4 may act in part by affecting perceptions of the environment. These results are consistent with a differential susceptibility model in which genes influencing environmental responsiveness interact with environments varying in obesogenicity to confer behavioral obesity risk in a less favorable environment, but behavioral obesity protection in a favorable one.
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