Serotonin transporter expression is predicted by early life stress and is associated with disinhibited behavior in infant rhesus macaques


E. L. Kinnally, PhD, Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute, Department of Molecular Imaging and Neuropathology, 1051 Riverside Drive, Room 2917, New York, NY 10032, USA. E-mail:


Serotonin transporter (5-HTT) expression patterns may contribute to the risk for adverse psychological outcomes following early life stress. The present study investigated whether two types of early life stress, maternal and social aggression, and a serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism (rh5-HTTLPR) predicted lower post-stressor peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) 5-HTT expression in infant rhesus macaques. We further probed the relationships among these factors and infant behavioral disinhibition within a stressful situation. Fifty-three infants residing with mothers in large, complex social groups were observed over the first 12 postnatal weeks, during which time the rate of aggression received by the infant from their mothers and social group members was recorded. At 90–120 days of age, infants underwent a 25-h maternal separation/biobehavioral assessment, which included standardized behavioral assessments and blood sampling. Infants' rh5-HTTLPR genotypes were determined, and infant 5-HTT expression was quantified from PBMCs collected 8 h after separation. Receipt of aggression from the mother, but not from social group members, was associated with lower post-stressor 5-HTT expression. Lower post-stressor 5-HTT expression, but not receipt of aggression, was associated with disinhibited behavior during assessment. Rh5-HTTLPR genotype was unrelated to any measure. We conclude that 5-HTT regulation is linked with specific, presumably stressful early experiences in infant rhesus macaques. Further, 5-HTT expression predicted behavioral disinhibition, presumably via parallel processes that operate in the brain.