Dopamine D4 receptor gene polymorphism (DRD4 VNTR) moderates real-world behavioural response to the food retail environment in children

BMC Public Health. 2021 Feb 3;21(1):145. doi: 10.1186/s12889-021-10160-w.


Background: Evidence for the impact of the food retailing environment on food-related and obesity outcomes remains equivocal, but only a few studies have attempted to identify sub-populations for whom this relationship might be stronger than others. Genetic polymorphisms related to dopamine signalling have been associated with differences in responses to rewards such as food and may be candidate markers to identify such sub-populations. This study sought to investigate whether genetic variation of the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4 exon III 48 bp VNTR polymorphism) moderated the association between local exposure to food retailers on BMI and diet in a sample of 4 to12-year-old children.

Methods: Data collected from a birth cohort and a community cross-sectional study conducted in Montreal, Canada, were combined to provide DRD4 VNTR polymorphism data in terms of presence of the 7-repeat allele (DRD4-7R) for 322 children aged between 4 and 12 (M (SD): 6.8(2.8) y). Outcomes were Body Mass Index (BMI) for age and energy density derived from a Food Frequency Questionnaire. Food environment was expressed as the proportion of local food retailers classified as healthful within 3 km of participants' residence. Linear regression models adjusted for age, sex, income, cohort, and geographic clustering were used to test gene*environment interactions.

Results: A significant gene*food environment interaction was found for energy density with results indicating that DRD4-7R carriers had more energy dense diets than non-carriers, with this effect being more pronounced in children living in areas with proportionally more unhealthy food retailers. No evidence of main or interactive effects of DRD4 VNTR and food environment was found for BMI.

Conclusions: Results of the present study suggest that a genetic marker related to dopamine pathways can identify children with potentially greater responsiveness to unhealthy local food environment. Future studies should investigate additional elements of the food environment and test whether results hold across different populations.

Keywords: Dopamine; Food behaviour; Food environment; Genetics; Obesity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Minisatellite Repeats
  • Polymorphism, Genetic* / genetics
  • Receptors, Dopamine D4 / genetics*


  • DRD4 protein, human
  • Receptors, Dopamine D4