Looking on the bright side of serotonin transporter gene variation.
Converging evidence indicates an association of the short (s), low-expressing variant of the repeat length polymorphism, serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR), in the human serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT, SERT, SLC6A4) with anxiety-related traits and increased risk for depression in interaction with psychosocial adversity across the life span. However, genetically driven deficient serotonin transporter (5-HTT) function would not have been maintained throughout evolution if it only exerted negative effects without conveying any gain of function. Here, we review recent findings that humans and nonhuman primates carrying the s variant of the 5-HTTLPR outperform subjects carrying the long allele in an array of cognitive tasks and show increased social conformity. In addition, studies in 5-HTT knockout rodents are included that provide complementary insights in the beneficial effects of the 5-HTTLPR s-allele. We postulate that hypervigilance, mediated by hyperactivity in corticolimbic structures, may be the common denominator in the anxiety-related traits and (social) cognitive superiority of s-allele carriers and that environmental conditions determine whether a response will turn out to be negative (emotional) or positive (cognitive, in conformity with the social group). Taken together, these findings urge for a conceptual change in the current deficit-oriented connotation of the 5-HTTLPR variants. In fact, these factors may counterbalance or completely offset the negative consequences of the anxiety-related traits. This notion may not only explain the modest effect size of the 5-HTTLPR and inconsistent reports but may also lead to a more refined appreciation of allelic variation in 5-HTT function.