The Met allele of the human brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene might be a risk factor for anxiety disorders and is associated with reduced hippocampal volume. Notably, hippocampus plays a crucial role in contextual learning and generalization. The role of the BDNF gene variation in human context-conditioning and generalization is still unknown. We investigated 33 carriers of the Met allele (18 females) and 32 homozygous carriers of the Val allele (15 females) with a virtual-reality context-conditioning paradigm. Electric stimulations (unconditioned stimulus, US) were unpredictably delivered in one virtual office (CTX+), but never in another virtual office (CTX-). During generalization, participants revisited CTX+ and CTX- and a generalization office (G-CTX), which was a mix of the other two. Rating data indicated successful conditioning (more negative valence, higher arousal, anxiety and contingency ratings for CTX+ than CTX-), and generalization of conditioned anxiety by comparable ratings for G-CTX and CTX+. The startle data indicated discriminative learning for Met allele carriers, but not for Val homozygotes. Moreover, a trend effect suggests that startle responses of only the Met carriers were slightly potentiated in G-CTX versus CTX-. In sum, the BDNF polymorphism did not affect contextual learning and its generalization on a verbal level. However, the physiological data suggest that Met carriers are characterized by fast discriminative contextual learning and a tendency to generalize anxiety responses to ambiguous contexts. We propose that such learning may be related to reduced hippocampal functionality and the basis for the risk of Met carriers to develop anxiety disorders.

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Journal of Neuroscience Research
Institute of Psychology

Andreatta, M. (Marta), Neueder, D. (Dorothea), Genheimer, H. (Hannah), Schiele, M.A. (Miriam A.), Schartner, C. (Christoph), Deckert, J. (Jürgen), … Pauli, P. (Paul). (2018). Human BDNF rs6265 polymorphism as a mediator for the generalization of contextual anxiety. Journal of Neuroscience Research. doi:10.1002/jnr.24345