The effects of catechol O-methyltransferase genotype on brain activation elicited by affective stimuli and cognitive tasks

Rev Neurosci. 2006;17(3):359-67. doi: 10.1515/revneuro.2006.17.3.359.


Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) degrades the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. A functional polymorphism in the COMT gene (val158 met) accounts for a four-fold variation in enzyme activity. The low activity met158 allele has been associated with improved working memory, executive functioning, and attentional control, but also with a higher risk of anxiety-related behaviors. In spite of the strong effect of the COMT genotype on enzyme activity, its effects on behavior are moderate, accounting for only 4% of variance in task performance. Studies of individuals with intermediate phenotypes during activities such as task-dependent brain activation, may more sensitively detect gene effects on the brain. A series of studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) assessed the effects of the COMT val158 met genotype on central processing during working memory, attentional control, and emotional tasks. fMRI revealed a more focused response in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of met158 allele carriers during a working memory task. A comparable effect during the performance of an attentional control task in the cingulate cortex was also observed. These data indicate that met158 allele load is associated with improved processing efficiency in the PFC and cingulate, which might be due to lower prefrontal dopamine (DA) metabolism, higher DA concentrations, and an increased neuronal signal-to-noise ratio during information processing. During performance of an emotional task, reactivity to unpleasant visual stimuli was positively correlated with the number of met158 alleles in the amygdala, as well as in other limbic and paralimbic nodes. This increased limbic reactivity to unpleasant stimuli might be the underlying cause of the lower emotional resilience against negative mood states observed in individuals with a higher met158 allele load. Thus the met158 allele seems to be beneficial during the performance of working memory and attention-related tasks, whereas the val158 allele appears to be advantageous during the processing of aversive emotional stimuli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase / genetics*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Methionine / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Valine / genetics


  • Methionine
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase
  • Valine