The serotonin-BDNF duo: developmental implications for the vulnerability to psychopathology

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jun:43:35-47. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.012. Epub 2014 Apr 3.


Serotonin (5-HT) and brain-derived neurotrophin factor (BDNF) are known to modulate behavioral responses to stress and to mediate the therapeutic efficacy of antidepressant agents through neuroplastic and epigenetic mechanisms. While the two systems interact at several levels, this scenario is complicated by a number of variants including brain region specificity, 5-HT receptor selectivity and timing. Based on recent insights obtained using 5-HT transporter (5-HTT) knockout rats we here set-out and discuss the crucial role of neurodevelopmental mechanisms and the contribution of transcription factors and epigenetic modifications to this interaction and its variants. 5-HTT knockout in rats, as well as the low activity short allelic variant of the serotonin transporter human polymorphism, consistently show reduced BDNF mRNA and protein levels in the hippocampus and in the prefrontal cortex. This starts during the second postnatal week, is preceded by DNA hypermethylation during the first postnatal week, and it is developmentally paralleled by reduced expression of key transcription factors. The reduced BDNF levels, in turn, affect 5-HT1A receptor-mediated intracellular signaling and thereby the serotonergic phenotype of the neurons. We propose that such a negative spiral of modifications may affect brain development and reduce its resiliency to environmental challenges during critical time windows, which may lead to phenotypic alterations that persist for the entire life. The characterization of 5-HT-BDNF interactions will eventually increase the understanding of mental illness etiology and, possibly, lead to the identification of novel molecular targets for drug development.

Keywords: 5-HTT; BDNF; DNA methylation; Depression; Neurodevelopment; Serotonin; Transcription factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Psychopathology
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Serotonin