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Serotonin and early cognitive development: variation in the tryptophan hydroxylase 2 gene is associated with visual attention in 7-month-old infants


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  Allelic variation in the promoter region of a gene that encodes tryptophan hydroxylase isoform 2 (TPH2), a rate-limiting enzyme of serotonin synthesis in the central nervous system, has been associated with variations in cognitive function and vulnerability to affective spectrum disorders. Little is known about the effects of this gene variant on cognition during development and about possible intermediate developmental steps that lead to the adult phenotype. Here, we examined the hypothesis that the TPH2 -703 may act during early stages of development and bias the acquisition of elementary cognitive processes involved in attention and emotion regulation.

Methods:  Seven-month-old infants (= 66) were genotyped for the TPH2 -703 G/T polymorphism (rs4570625) and tested for the efficiency of attention shifts from a stimulus at fixation to a new stimulus in the visual periphery.

Results:  Compared to TPH2 G/G homozygotes, infants with the T-carrier genotype exhibited a significantly higher number of missing attention shifts. This genotype effect tended to be particularly pronounced when infants had to disengage from an affectively salient stimulus before shifting attention to the peripheral stimulus. The results also showed that TPH2 genotype was indirectly associated, via its effect on attention disengagement, with temperamental emotion regulation (soothability).

Conclusions:  Together, these results implicate serotonin system genes in early cognitive development and suggest variations in the early-emerging cognitive capacities as a potential developmental precursor of individual differences in emotion regulation and vulnerability to affective disorders.