Background: The psychobiological model of personality by Cloninger and colleagues originally hypothesized that interindividual variability in the temperament dimension 'harm avoidance' (HA) is explained by differences in the activity of the brain serotonin system. We assessed brain serotonin transporter (5-HTT) density in vivo with positron emission tomography (PET) in healthy individuals with high or low HA scores using an 'oversampling' study design. Method Subjects consistently in either upper or lower quartiles for the HA trait were selected from a population-based cohort in Finland (n = 2075) with pre-existing Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) scores. A total of 22 subjects free of psychiatric and somatic disorders were included in the matched high- and low-HA groups. The main outcome measure was regional 5-HTT binding potential (BPND) in high- and low-HA groups estimated with PET and [11C]N,N-dimethyl-2-(2-amino-4-methylphenylthio)benzylamine ([11C]MADAM). In secondary analyses, 5-HTT BPND was correlated with other TCI dimensions.
Results: 5-HTT BPND did not differ between high- and low-HA groups in the midbrain or any other brain region. This result remained the same even after adjusting for other relevant TCI dimensions. Higher 5-HTT BPND in the raphe nucleus predicted higher scores in 'self-directedness'.
Conclusions: This study does not support an association between the temperament dimension HA and serotonin transporter density in healthy subjects. However, we found a link between high serotonin transporter density and high 'self-directedness' (ability to adapt and control one's behaviour to fit situations in accord with chosen goals and values). We suggest that biological factors are more important in explaining variability in character than previously thought.