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PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e30564. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030564. Epub 2012 Jan 23.

Serotonin transporter polymorphism modulates N-back task performance and fMRI BOLD signal intensity in healthy women.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Center for the Study of Human Cognition, Oslo, Norway.



Exploring intermediate phenotypes within the human brain's functional and structural circuitry is a promising approach to explain the relative contributions of genetics, complex behaviors and neural mechanisms in the development of major depressive disorder (MDD). The polymorphic region 5-HTTLPR in the serotonin transporter gene (SLC6A4) has been shown to modulate MDD risk, but the neural underpinnings are incompletely understood.


37 right handed healthy women between 21 and 61 years of age were invited to participate in an fMRI modified n-back study. The functional polymorphism 5-HTTLPR located in the promoter region of the SLC6A4 gene was genotyped using polymerase chain reaction (PCR).


Short 5-HTTLPR allele carriers showed more blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) bilateral prefrontal cortex activation in the right [F(2, 30) = 4.8, η(2) = .25, p = .026] and left [F(2, 30) = 4.1, η(2) = .22, p = .015] inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis with increasing n-back task difficulty relative to long 5-HTTLPR allele carriers. Short 5-HTTLPR allele carriers had inferior task performance on the most difficult n-back condition [F(2, 30) = 4.9, η(2) = .26, p = .014].


This activation pattern found in healthy at risk individuals resembles an activation pattern that is typically found in patients suffering from acute MDD. Altered function in these areas may reflect intermediate phenotypes and may help explain the increased risk of depression in short 5-HTTLPR allele carriers.

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