Child exposure to serious life events, COMT, and aggression: Testing differential susceptibility theory.


Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to individual differences in aggression. Catechol-O-methyltransferase Val158Met (COMT), a common, functional polymorphism, has been implicated in aggression and aggression traits, as have childhood experiences of adversity. It is unknown whether these effects are additive or interactional and, in the case of interaction, whether they conform to a diathesis-stress or differential susceptibility model. We examined Gene x Environment interactions between COMT and serious life events on measures of childhood aggression and contrasted these 2 models. The sample was composed of community children (N = 704); 355 were boys, and the mean age was 54.8 months (SD = 3.0). The children were genotyped for COMT rs4680 and assessed for serious life events and by teacher-rated aggression. Regression analysis showed no main effects of COMT and serious life events on aggression. However, a significant interactive effect of childhood serious life events and COMT genotype was observed: Children who had faced many serious life events and were Val homozygotes exhibited more aggression (p = .02) than did their Met-carrying counterparts. Notably, in the absence of serious life events, Val homozygotes displayed significantly lower aggression scores than did Met carriers (p = .03). When tested, this constellation of findings conformed to the differential susceptibility hypothesis: In this case, Val homozygotes are more malleable to the effect of serious life events on aggression and not simply more vulnerable to the negative effect of having experienced many serious life events.