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Anxious temperament (AT) in human and non-human primates is a trait-like phenotype evident early in life that is characterized by increased behavioural and physiological reactivity to mildly threatening stimuli. Studies in children demonstrate that AT is an important risk factor for the later development of anxiety disorders, depression and comorbid substance abuse. Despite its importance as an early predictor of psychopathology, little is known about the factors that predispose vulnerable children to develop AT and the brain systems that underlie its expression. To characterize the neural circuitry associated with AT and the extent to which the function of this circuit is heritable, we studied a large sample of rhesus monkeys phenotyped for AT. Using 238 young monkeys from a multigenerational single-family pedigree, we simultaneously assessed brain metabolic activity and AT while monkeys were exposed to the relevant ethological condition that elicits the phenotype. High-resolution (18)F-labelled deoxyglucose positron-emission tomography (FDG-PET) was selected as the imaging modality because it provides semi-quantitative indices of absolute glucose metabolic rate, allows for simultaneous measurement of behaviour and brain activity, and has a time course suited for assessing temperament-associated sustained brain responses. Here we demonstrate that the central nucleus region of the amygdala and the anterior hippocampus are key components of the neural circuit predictive of AT. We also show significant heritability of the AT phenotype by using quantitative genetic analysis. Additionally, using voxelwise analyses, we reveal significant heritability of metabolic activity in AT-associated hippocampal regions. However, activity in the amygdala region predictive of AT is not significantly heritable. Furthermore, the heritabilities of the hippocampal and amygdala regions significantly differ from each other. Even though these structures are closely linked, the results suggest differential influences of genes and environment on how these brain regions mediate AT and the ongoing risk of developing anxiety and depression.
The corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) system integrates the stress response and is associated with stress-related psychopathology. Previous reports have identified interactions between childhood trauma and sequence variation in the CRH receptor 1 gene (CRHR1) that increase risk for affective disorders. However, the underlying mechanisms that connect variation in CRHR1 to psychopathology are unknown. To explore potential mechanisms, we used a validated rhesus macaque model to investigate association between genetic variation in CRHR1, anxious temperament (AT) and brain metabolic activity. In young rhesus monkeys, AT is analogous to the childhood risk phenotype that predicts the development of human anxiety and depressive disorders. Regional brain metabolism was assessed with (18)F-labeled fluoro-2-deoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography in 236 young, normally reared macaques that were also characterized for AT. We show that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) affecting exon 6 of CRHR1 influence both AT and metabolic activity in the anterior hippocampus and amygdala, components of the neural circuit underlying AT. We also find evidence for association between SNPs in CRHR1 and metabolism in the intraparietal sulcus and precuneus. These translational data suggest that genetic variation in CRHR1 affects the risk for affective disorders by influencing the function of the neural circuit underlying AT and that differences in gene expression or the protein sequence involving exon 6 may be important. These results suggest that variation in CRHR1 may influence brain function before any childhood adversity and may be a diathesis for the interaction between CRHR1 genotypes and childhood trauma reported to affect human psychopathology.
Oxytocin, a peptide that functions as both a hormone and neurotransmitter, has broad influences on social and emotional processing throughout the body and the brain. In this study, we tested how a polymorphism (rs53576) of the oxytocin receptor relates to two key social processes related to oxytocin: empathy and stress reactivity. Compared with individuals homozygous for the G allele of rs53576 (GG), individuals with one or two copies of the A allele (AG/AA) exhibited lower behavioral and dispositional empathy, as measured by the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test and an other-oriented empathy scale. Furthermore, AA/AG individuals displayed higher physiological and dispositional stress reactivity than GG individuals, as determined by heart rate response during a startle anticipation task and an affective reactivity scale. Our results provide evidence of how a naturally occurring genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor relates to both empathy and stress profiles.
A variant allele in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene, SLC6A4, the s allele, is associated with increased vulnerability to develop anxiety-related traits and depression. Furthermore, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies reveal that s carriers have increased amygdala reactivity in response to aversive stimuli, which is thought to be an intermediate phenotype mediating the influences of the s allele on emotionality. We used high-resolution microPET [18F]fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (FDG) scanning to assess regional brain metabolic activity in rhesus monkeys to further explore s allele-related intermediate phenotypes. Rhesus monkeys provide an excellent model to understand mechanisms underlying human anxiety, and FDG microPET allows for the assessment of brain activity associated with naturalistic environments outside the scanner. During FDG uptake, monkeys were exposed to different ethologically relevant stressful situations (relocation and threat) as well as to the less stressful familiar environment of their home cage. The s carriers displayed increased orbitofrontal cortex activity in response to both relocation and threat. However, during relocation they displayed increased amygdala reactivity and in response to threat they displayed increased reactivity of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. No increase in the activity of any of these regions occurred when the animals were administered FDG in their home cages. These findings demonstrate context-dependent intermediate phenotypes in s carriers that provide a framework for understanding the mechanisms underlying the vulnerabilities of s-allele carriers exposed to different types of stressors.