Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Val66Met) and serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) polymorphisms modulate plasticity in inhibitory control performance over time but independent of inhibitory control training

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Several studies reported training-induced improvements in executive function tasks and also observed transfer to untrained tasks. However, the results are mixed and there is large interindividual variability within and across studies. Given that training-related performance changes would require modification, growth or differentiation at the cellular and synaptic level in the brain, research on critical moderators of brain plasticity potentially explaining such changes is needed. In the present study, a pre-post-follow-up design (N=122) and a three-weeks training of two response inhibition tasks (Go/NoGo and Stop-Signal) was employed and genetic variation (Val66Met) in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) promoting differentiation and activity-dependent synaptic plasticity was examined. Because Serotonin (5-HT) signaling and the interplay of BDNF and 5-HT are known to critically mediate brain plasticity, genetic variation in the 5-HT transporter (5-HTTLPR) was also addressed. The overall results show that the kind of training (i.e., adaptive vs. non-adaptive) did not evoke genotype-dependent differences. However, in the Go/NoGo task, better inhibition performance (lower commission errors) were observed for BDNF Val/Val genotype carriers compared to Met-allele ones supporting similar findings from other cognitive tasks. Additionally, a gene-gene interaction suggests a more impulsive response pattern (faster responses accompanied by higher commission error rates) in homozygous l-allele carriers relative to those with the s-allele of 5-HTTLPR. This, however, is true only in the presence of the Met-allele of BDNF, while the Val/Val genotype seems to compensate for such non-adaptive responding. Intriguingly, similar results were obtained for the Stop-Signal task. Here, differences emerged at post-testing, while no differences were observed at T1. In sum, although no genotype-dependent differences between the relevant training groups emerged suggesting no changes in the trained inhibition function, the observed genotype-dependent performance changes from pre- to post measurement may reflect rapid learning or memory effects linked to BDNF and 5-HTTLPR. In line with ample evidence on BDNF and BDNF-5-HT system interactions to induce (rapid) plasticity especially in hippocampal regions and in response to environmental demands, the findings may reflect genotype-dependent differences in the acquisition and consolidation of task-relevant information, thereby facilitating a more adaptive responding to task-specific requirements.