Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has a crucial role in activity-dependent synaptic plasticity and learning and memory. The human functional single-nucleotide BDNF rs6265 (Val66Met) polymorphism has been found to be associated with alteration in neural BDNF release and function correlating with altered emotional behavior. Here, we investigated for the first time the hypothesis that this polymorphism in humans modulates the context dependency of conditioned fear responses. Applying a new paradigm examining generalization of cued fear across contexts, 70 participants stratified for BDNF Val66Met polymorphism were guided through two virtual offices (context) in which briefly illuminated blue and yellow lights served as cues. In the fear context, one light (conditioned stimulus, CS þ ) but not the other light (CS ) was associated with an electric shock (unconditioned stimulus, US). In the safety context, both lights were presented too, but no US was delivered. During the test phase, lights were presented again both in learning contexts and in a novel generalization context without any US. All participants showed clear fear conditioning to the CS þ in the fear context as indicated by potentiation of startle responses and reports of fear. No fear reactions were found for the CS þ in the safety context. Importantly, generalization of fear responses indicated by the potentiation of startle response to the CSþ compared with the CS in the novel context was evident only in the Met-carrying group. These are the first results to provide evidence in humans that BDNF modulates the generalization of fear responses. Such contextdependent generalization processes might predispose Met carriers for affective and anxiety disorders.

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Department of Psychology

Muehlberger, A., Andreatta, M., Ewald, H., Glotzbach-Schoon, E., Troeger, C., Baumann, C, … Pauli, P. (2014). BDNF polymorphism modulates the generalization of cued fear responses to a novel context. Neuropsychopharmacology, 39, 1187–1195. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.320