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PLoS One. 2011 Mar 15;6(3):e17752. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017752.

Perception of thermal pain and the thermal grill illusion is associated with polymorphisms in the serotonin transporter gene.

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Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Stockholm Brain Institute, Department of Clinical Neuroscience Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.



The main aim of this study was to assess if the perception of thermal pain thresholds is associated with genetically inferred levels of expression of the 5-HT transporter (5-HTT). Additionally, the perception of the so-called thermal grill illusion (TGI) was assessed. Forty-four healthy individuals (27 females, 17 males) were selected a-priori based on their 5-HTTLPR/rs25531 ('tri-allelic 5-HTTLPR') genotype, with inferred high or low 5-HTT expression. Thresholds for heat- and cold-pain were determined along with the sensory and affective dimensions of the TGI.


Thresholds to heat- and cold-pain correlated strongly (rho  = -0.58, p<0.001). Individuals in the low 5-HTT-expressing group were significantly less sensitive to heat-pain (p = 0.02) and cold-pain (p = 0.03), compared to the high-expressing group. A significant gender-by-genotype interaction also emerged for cold-pain perception (p = 0.02); low 5-HTT-expressing females were less sensitive. The TGI was rated as significantly more unpleasant (affective-motivational dimension) than painful (sensory-discriminatory dimension), (p<0.001). Females in the low 5-HTT expressing group rated the TGI as significantly less unpleasant than high 5-HTT expressing females (p<0.05), with no such differences among men.


We demonstrate an association between inferred low 5-HTT expression and elevated thresholds to thermal pain in healthy non-depressed individuals. Despite the fact that reduced 5-HTT expression is a risk factor for chronic pain we found it to be related to hypoalgesia for threshold thermal pain. Low 5-HTT expression is, however, also a risk factor for depression where thermal insensitivity is often seen. Our results may thus contribute to a better understanding of the molecular underpinnings of such paradoxical hypoalgesia. The results point to a differential regulation of thermoafferent-information along the neuraxis on the basis of 5-HTT expression and gender. The TGI, suggested to rely on the central integration of thermoafferent-information, may prove a valuable tool in probing the affective-motivational dimension of these putative mechanisms.

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