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Recognition of scared faces and the serotonin transporter gene in young children: the Generation R Study

Authors

  • Eszter Székely,

    1. The Generation R Study Group, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    2. Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Erasmus Medical Center – Sophia Children’s Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Catherine M. Herba,

    1. Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Erasmus Medical Center – Sophia Children’s Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    2. Ste-Justine’s Hospital Research Center and Department of Psychiatry, University of Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada
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  • Pascal P. Arp,

    1. Department of Internal Medicine, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • André G. Uitterlinden,

    1. Department of Internal Medicine, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Vincent W.V. Jaddoe,

    1. The Generation R Study Group, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    2. Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    3. Department of Pediatrics, Erasmus Medical Center – Sophia Children’s Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Albert Hofman,

    1. Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Frank C. Verhulst,

    1. Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Erasmus Medical Center – Sophia Children’s Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • James J. Hudziak,

    1. Department of Psychiatry, Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA
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  • Henning Tiemeier

    1. Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Erasmus Medical Center – Sophia Children’s Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    2. Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Authors of the present manuscript reported no financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.

Abstract

Background:  Previous research highlights the significance of a functional polymorphism located in the promoter region (5-HTTLPR) of the serotonin transporter gene in emotional behaviour. This study examined the effect of the 5-HTTLPR polymorphism on emotion processing in a large number of healthy preschoolers.

Methods:  The 5-HTTLPR genotype was classified in 605 children as homozygous for the short allele (SS), homozygous for the long allele (LL), or heterozygous (LS). Emotion-processing was assessed using age-appropriate computer tasks where children matched happy, sad, angry, and fearful facial expressions preceded by a shape-matching task to assess basic matching ability.

Results:  We found that young children could differentiate between emotion categories (F = 12.1, p < .001). The effect of 5-HTTLPR genotype depended on the emotion category presented (F = 2.3, p = .031). This effect was explained by the finding that SS children were less accurate at recognising fearful faces than LL or LS children (F = 5.3, p = .005). We did not find any significant differences as a result of 5-HTTLPR genotype for happy, sad or angry expressions (p > .05).

Conclusions:  Results indicate that 5-HTTLPR allele status selectively impacts the processing of fearful but not other facial expressions. This pattern is already apparent in very young typically developing children. Results may signal an early vulnerability for affective problems before disorders emerge.

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