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Genes Brain Behav. 2009 Feb;8(1):80-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-183X.2008.00447.x.

Genetic variation in brain-derived neurotrophic factor and human fear conditioning.

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Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500, USA.


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has been implicated in hippocampal-dependent learning processes, and carriers of the Met allele of the Val66Met BDNF genotype are characterized by reduced hippocampal structure and function. Recent nonhuman animal work suggests that BDNF is also crucial for amygdala-dependent associative learning. The present study sought to examine fear conditioning as a function of the BDNF polymorphism. Fifty-seven participants were genotyped for the BDNF polymorphism and took part in a differential-conditioning paradigm. Participants were shocked following a particular conditioned stimulus (CS+) and were also presented with stimuli that ranged in perceptual similarity to the CS+ (20, 40 or 60% smaller or larger than the CS+). The eye blink component of the startle response was measured to quantify fear conditioning; post-task shock likelihood ratings for each stimulus were also obtained. All participants reported that shock likelihood varied with perceptual similarity to the CS+ and showed potentiated startle in response to CS +/- 20% stimuli. However, only the Val/Val group had potentiated startle responses to the CS+. Met allele carrying individuals were characterized by deficient fear conditioning--evidenced by an attenuated startle response to CS+ stimuli. Variation in the BDNF genotype appears related to abnormal fear conditioning, consistent with nonhuman animal work on the importance of BDNF in amygdala-dependent associative learning. The relation between genetic variation in BDNF and amygdala-dependent associative learning deficits is discussed in terms of potential mechanisms of risk for psychopathology.

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