Benefits of a “vulnerability gene”? A study in serotonin transporter knockout mice

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Abstract

Over the past years, certain “vulnerability genes” have been identified that play a key role in the development of mood and anxiety disorders. In particular, a low-expressing variant of the human serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene has been described that renders individuals more susceptible to adverse experience and hence to the development of psychiatric diseases. However, some authors have recently argued that lower 5-HTT expression not only increases vulnerability to adverse experiences, but also enhances susceptibility to beneficial experiences, thus promoting phenotypic plasticity. The aim of the present study was to assess the effects of 5-HTT expression on susceptibility to beneficial experience in a hypothesis-driven experimental approach. Using a well-established rodent model for the human polymorphism, male heterozygous 5-HTT knockout (HET) and 5-HTT wildtype (WT) mice were either provided with the beneficial experience of cohabitation with a female (mating experience) or kept as naïve controls in single-housing conditions. Following the experimental treatment, they were tested for their anxiety-like behaviour and exploratory locomotion in three widely used behavioural tests. Interestingly, while cohabitation reduced anxiety-like behaviour and increased exploratory locomotion in the open field test in HET mice, it did not affect WT mice, pointing to a genotype-dependent susceptibility to the beneficial experience. Thus, our results might support the view of the low expressing version of the 5-HTT gene as a “plasticity” rather than a “vulnerability” variant.

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