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Genetic Gating of Human Fear Learning and Extinction: Possible Implications for Gene-Environment Interaction in Anxiety Disorder

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ABSTRACT

Pavlovian fear conditioning is a widely used model of the acquisition and extinction of fear. Neural findings suggest that the amygdala is the core structure for fear acquisition, whereas prefrontal cortical areas are given pivotal roles in fear extinction. Forty-eight volunteers participated in a fear-conditioning experiment, which used fear potentiation of the startle reflex as the primary measure to investigate the effect of two genetic polymorphisms (5-HTTLPR and COMTval158met) on conditioning and extinction of fear. The 5-HTTLPR polymorphism, located in the serotonin transporter gene, is associated with amygdala reactivity and neuroticism, whereas the COMTval158met polymorphism, which is located in the gene coding for catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), a dopamine-degrading enzyme, affects prefrontal executive functions. Our results show that only carriers of the 5-HTTLPR s allele exhibited conditioned startle potentiation, whereas carriers of the COMT met/met genotype failed to extinguish conditioned fear. These results may have interesting implications for understanding gene-environment interactions in the development and treatment of anxiety disorders.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Clinical and Biological Psychology, Ernst Moritz-Arndt University of Greifswald; 2: Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Neurogenetics Unit, Karolinska Institutet; and

Publication date: 01 February 2009

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