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Behavioural phenotypes associated with specific genetic disorders: evidence from a population-based study of people with Prader-Willi syndrome

  • A. J. HOLLAND (a1), J. E. WHITTINGTON (a1), J. BUTLER (a1), T. WEBB (a1), H. BOER (a1) and D. CLARKE (a1)...


Background. Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) is a genetic disorder resulting in obesity, short stature, cryptorchidism, learning disabilities (mental retardation) and severe neonatal hypotonia. Associated with the syndrome are a number of behaviours that are sufficiently distinctive that the syndrome is considered to have a specific ‘behavioural phenotype’.

Methods. Through multiple sources we attempted to identify all people with PWS living in one region in the UK. This cohort was augmented by people with PWS from other regions, and a contrast group of people with learning disabilities of varied aetiologies. The main carers were interviewed, using structured and semi-structured interview schedules, to establish the presence and severity of specific behaviours, and PWS diagnostic criteria. The intellectual functioning and attainments of all were determined. Blood samples were obtained for genetic diagnosis from all consenting participants.

Results. Although excessive eating was recognized as a potentially severe problem in those with PWS, it was almost universally controlled by food restriction, and therefore not seen as a ‘problem behaviour’. Those with PWS differed from a learning disabled group of other aetiologies in the prevalence rates of skin picking, temper tantrums, compulsive behaviours and mood fluctuations, and also in the profile of their adaptive behaviours.

Conclusions. The study confirms the distinct behavioural phenotype of PWS. Specific behaviours occurred significantly more frequently in PWS, compared with an age and BMI matched learning disabled comparison group. A factor analysis of the behaviours involved resulted in three factors that we hypothesized to be independent, and to arise from different mechanisms.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Dr A. J. Holland, Section of Developmental Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas House, 18B Trumpington Road, Cambridge CB2 2AH.


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