Background: Recent evidence indicates that individuals who are homozygous for the short (s) allele in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene have higher rates of depression and other psychiatric disorders as a function of exposure to increasing levels of stressful life events than do individuals who have one or two copies of the long (l) allele. Despite the reliability of this association, the mechanism by which this polymorphism confers risk for psychopathology in the presence of stress is not understood. This study was designed to examine the formulation that individuals who are homozygous for the s allele are characterized by a greater biological reactivity to stress than are their counterparts who have one or two copies of the l allele. Methods: Girls at high (n = 25) and low (n = 42) risk for depression by virtue of the presence or absence of a family history of this disorder were genotyped and exposed to a standardized laboratory stress task. Cortisol levels were assessed before the stressor, after the stressor, and during an extended recovery period. Results: Girls who were homozygous for the s allele produced higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in response to the stressor than did girls with an l allele. Conclusions: These findings indicate that the 5-HTTLPR polymorphism is associated with biological stress reactivity, which may increase susceptibility to depression in the face of stressful life events. © 2008 Society of Biological Psychiatry.
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