The orienting of spatial attention to backward masked fearful faces is associated with variation in the serotonin transporter gene

Emotion. 2012 Apr;12(2):203-7. doi: 10.1037/a0025170. Epub 2011 Aug 29.


Threat signals facilitate spatial attention, even when awareness of these signals has been restricted through the use of backward masking. However, unrestricted/unmasked threat cues tend to delay the disengagement of attention, whereas restricted/masked threat facilitates orienting, suggesting different underlying mechanisms. Within the general population, the serotonin transporter gene polymorphism (5HTTLPR) is associated with one's allocation of attention to unmasked threat signals. However, it is unclear to what extent the 5HTTLPR gene may be involved in nonconscious biases to masked threat, and whether or not such biases are driven by facilitated orienting or delayed disengagement. Participants were genotyped and performed a dot-probe task with backward masked fearful and neutral faces. Results indicate that short-allele carriers of the 5HTTLPR gene nonconsciously orient spatial attention to masked fearful faces. On the other hand, homozygous long-allele individuals tended to direct attention away from masked fearful faces. All participants' performance was at chance in a posttask assessment of awareness for the masked faces. The results add to current literature on the 5HTTLPR and attention biases, and suggest that threat signals facilitate the orienting of attention in short-allele carriers of the 5HTTLPR gene even under restricted processing conditions.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alleles*
  • Arousal / genetics
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Genetic Carrier Screening
  • Genotype*
  • Glycine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic / genetics*
  • Reaction Time / genetics
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Glycine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • SLC6A5 protein, human