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PLoS One. 2011 Mar 28;6(3):e18252. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018252.

Conditioned pain modulation is associated with common polymorphisms in the serotonin transporter gene.

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



Variation in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene (SLC6A4) has been shown to influence a wide range of affective processes. Low 5-HTT gene-expression has also been suggested to increase the risk of chronic pain. Conditioned pain modulation (CPM)--i.e. 'pain inhibits pain'--is impaired in chronic pain states and, reciprocally, aberrations of CPM may predict the development of chronic pain. Therefore we hypothesized that a common variation in the SLC6A4 is associated with inter-individual variation in CPM. Forty-five healthy subjects recruited on the basis of tri-allelic 5-HTTLPR genotype, with inferred high or low 5-HTT-expression, were included in a double-blind study. A submaximal-effort tourniquet test was used to provide a standardized degree of conditioning ischemic pain. Individualized noxious heat and pressure pain thresholds (PPTs) were used as subjective test-modalities and the nociceptive flexion reflex (NFR) was used to provide an objective neurophysiological window into spinal processing.


The low, as compared to the high, 5-HTT-expressing group exhibited significantly reduced CPM-mediated pain inhibition for PPTs (p = 0.02) and heat-pain (p = 0.02). The CPM-mediated inhibition of the NFR, gauged by increases in NFR-threshold, did not differ significantly between groups (p = 0.75). Inhibition of PPTs and heat-pain were correlated (Spearman's rho = 0.35, p = 0.02), whereas the NFR-threshold increase was not significantly correlated with degree of inhibition of these subjectively reported modalities.


Our results demonstrate the involvement of the tri-allelic 5-HTTLPR genotype in explaining clinically relevant inter-individual differences in pain perception and regulation. Our results also illustrate that shifts in NFR-thresholds do not necessarily correlate to the modulation of experienced pain. We discuss various possible mechanisms underlying these findings and suggest a role of regulation of 5-HT receptors along the neuraxis as a function of differential 5-HTT-expression.

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