The molecular genetics of executive function: role of monoamine system genes

Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Jun 15;69(12):e127-43. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.040. Epub 2011 Mar 11.


Executive control processes, such as sustained attention, response inhibition, and error monitoring, allow humans to guide behavior in appropriate, flexible, and adaptive ways. The consequences of executive dysfunction for humans can be dramatic, as exemplified by the large range of both neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders in which such deficits negatively affect outcome and quality of life. Much evidence suggests that many clinical disorders marked by executive deficits are highly heritable and that individual differences in quantitative measures of executive function are strongly driven by genetic differences. Accordingly, intense research effort has recently been directed toward mapping the genetic architecture of executive control processes in both clinical (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and nonclinical populations. Here we review the extant literature on the molecular genetic correlates of three exemplar but dissociable executive functions: sustained attention, response inhibition, and error processing. Our review focuses on monoaminergic gene variants given the strong body of evidence from cognitive neuroscience and pharmacology implicating dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin as neuromodulators of executive function. Associations between DNA variants of the dopamine beta hydroxylase gene and measures of sustained attention accord well with cognitive-neuroanatomical models of sustained attention. Equally, functional variants of the dopamine D2 receptor gene are reliably associated with performance monitoring, error processing, and reinforcement learning. Emerging evidence suggests that variants of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1) and dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) show promise for explaining significant variance in individual differences in both behavioral and neural measures of inhibitory control.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Biogenic Monoamines / physiology*
  • Executive Function / drug effects
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Models, Biological
  • Polymorphism, Genetic / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Psychotropic Drugs / pharmacology


  • Biogenic Monoamines
  • Psychotropic Drugs