Automatic approach-avoidance tendencies as a candidate intermediate phenotype for depression: Associations with childhood trauma and the 5-HTTLPR transporter polymorphism

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Abstract

Depression risk genes in combination with childhood events have been associated with biased processing as an intermediate phenotype for depression. The aim of the present conceptual replication study was to investigate the role of biased automatic approach-avoidance tendencies as a candidate intermediate phenotype for depression, in the context of genes (5-HTTLPR polymorphism) and childhood trauma. A naturalistic remitted depressed patients sample (N = 209) performed an Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT) with facial expressions (angry, sad, happy and neutral). Childhood trauma was assessed with a questionnaire. Genotype groups were created based on allele frequency: LaLa versus S/Lg-carriers. The latter is associated with depression risk. We found that remitted S/Lg-carriers who experienced childhood trauma automatically avoided sad facial expressions relatively more than LaLa homozygotes with childhood trauma. Remitted LaLa-carriers who had not experienced childhood trauma, avoided sad faces relatively more than LaLa homozygotes with childhood trauma. We did not find a main effect of childhood trauma, nor differential avoidance of any of the other facial expressions. Although tentative, the results suggest that automatic approach-avoidance tendencies for disorder-congruent materials may be a fitting intermediate phenotype for depression. The specific pattern of tendencies, and the relation to depression, may depend on the genetic risk profile and childhood trauma, but replication is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

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Fleurkens, P., Van Minnen, A., Becker, E. S., Van Oostrom, I., Speckens, A., Rinck, M., & Vrijsen, J. N. (2018). Automatic approach-avoidance tendencies as a candidate intermediate phenotype for depression: Associations with childhood trauma and the 5-HTTLPR transporter polymorphism. PLoS ONE, 13(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193787

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