Early life adversity and serotonin transporter gene variation interact at the level of the adrenal gland to affect the adult hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis

Transl Psychiatry. 2014 Jul 8;4(7):e409. doi: 10.1038/tp.2014.57.


The short allelic variant of the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) promoter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR) has been associated with the etiology of major depression by interaction with early life stress (ELS). Furthermore, 5-HTTLPR has been associated with abnormal functioning of the stress-responsive hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Here, we examined if, and at what level, the HPA-axis is affected in an animal model for ELS × 5-HTTLPR interactions. Heterozygous and homozygous 5-HTT knockout rats and their wild-type littermates were exposed daily at postnatal days 2-14 to 3 h of maternal separation. When grown to adulthood, plasma levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and the major rat glucocorticoid, corticosterone (CORT), were measured. Furthermore, the gene expression of key HPA-axis players at the level of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands was assessed. No 5-HTT genotype × ELS interaction effects on gene expression were observed at the level of the hypothalamus or pituitary. However, we found significant 5-HTT genotype × ELS interaction effects for plasma CORT levels and adrenal mRNA levels of the ACTH receptor, such that 5-HTT deficiency was associated under control conditions with increased, but after ELS with decreased basal HPA-axis activity. With the use of an in vitro adrenal assay, naïve 5-HTT knockout rats were furthermore shown to display increased adrenal ACTH sensitivity. Therefore, we conclude that basal HPA-axis activity is affected by the interaction of 5-HTT genotype and ELS, and is programmed, within the axis itself, predominantly at the level of the adrenal gland. This study therefore emphasizes the importance of the adrenal gland for HPA-related psychiatric disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / metabolism*
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Maternal Deprivation
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Transgenic
  • Receptors, Corticotropin / metabolism
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Corticotropin
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticosterone