The serotonin transporter gene alters sensitivity to attention bias modification: evidence for a plasticity gene.
Fox E., Zougkou K., Ridgewell A., Garner K.
BACKGROUND: Attention bias modification (ABM) procedures have been shown to modify biased attention with important implications for emotional vulnerability and resilience. The use of ABM to reduce potentially toxic biases, for instance, is a newly emerging therapy for anxiety disorders. A separate line of gene-by-environment interaction research proposes that many so-called vulnerability genes or risk alleles are better seen as plasticity genes, as they seem to make individuals more susceptible to environmental influences for better and for worse. METHODS: A standard ABM procedure was used with a sample of 116 healthy adults. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two training groups. One received an ABM procedure designed to induce a bias in attention toward negative material, while the other was trained toward positive pictures. Individuals with low- and high-expressing forms of the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) were compared. RESULTS: Those with a low-expression form (S/S, S/Lg, or Lg/Lg) of the 5-HTTLPR gene developed stronger biases for both negative and positive affective pictures relative to those with the high-expression (La/La) form of the gene. CONCLUSIONS: Here, we report the first evidence that allelic variation in the promotor region of the 5-HTTLPR gene predicts different degrees of sensitivity to ABM. These results suggest a potential cognitive mechanism for the gene-by-environment interactions that have been found in relation to the serotonin transporter gene. Variation on this genotype may therefore determine who will benefit most (and least) from therapeutic interventions, adversity, and supportive environments.