Considerable variability in the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress has been found in quantitative genetic studies investigating healthy individuals suggesting that at least part of this variance is due to genetic factors. Since the HPA axis is regulated by a neuronal network including amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex as well as brainstem circuits, the investigation of candidate genes that impact neurotransmitter systems related to these brain regions might further elucidate the genetic underpinnings of the stress response. However, aside from genetic risk factors, past stressful life events might also result in long-term adjustments of HPA axis reactivity. Here, we investigated the effects of the -1019 G/C polymorphism in the HTR1A gene encoding the serotonin (5-HT) receptor 1A (5-HT(1A)) and stressful life events experienced during childhood and adolescence on changes in cortisol levels in response to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) in a sample of healthy older adults (N=97). Regression analyses revealed a significant effect of HTR1A genotype with the G allele being associated with a less pronounced stress response. In addition, an inverse relationship between past stressful life events and cortisol release but no gene × environment interaction was detected. The results further underscore the crucial role of functional serotonergic genetic variation as well as stressful events during critical stages of development on the acute stress response later in life.
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