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Keywords:

  • anxiety;
  • gene–environment interaction;
  • cognitive biases;
  • serotonin transporter polymorphism;
  • environmental adversity

Background

Cognitive biases have long been hypothesized to influence the development and maintenance of symptoms of internalizing problems. Anxiety sensitivity represents one such bias and refers to sensitivity to the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and the belief that these are harmful. Twin studies indicate a role for both environmental and genetic influences on anxiety sensitivity. However, little work has been done specifying environments or genes involved in this phenotype. In light of this, we looked at the association between stressful life events, the serotonin transporter gene polymorphism (5HTTLPR), and anxiety sensitivity in a longitudinal sample of adolescents.

Methods

Stressful life events and anxiety sensitivity were measured in over 1,500 individuals at three time points (mean ages 15, 17, and 20 years). 5HTTLPR was genotyped in 1,109 participants.

Results

There was consistent evidence for an association between stressful life events and both anxiety sensitivity and change in anxiety sensitivity over time. Although the effect of independent stressful life events was relatively short lived, dependent stressful life events were associated with anxiety sensitivity over time. There was no evidence for a main effect of 5HTTLPR on anxiety sensitivity. 5HTTLPR genotype did not moderate the effect of stressful life events on anxiety sensitivity.

Conclusions

The current study extends previous work by showing that stressful life events, independent of the individual, explained change in cognitions associated with anxiety and depression. This effect does not, however, appear to be moderated by genotype.