Depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder are linked to altered limbic morphology, dysregulated neuroendocrine function, and heightened amygdala responses to salient social cues. Oxytocin appears to be a potent modulator of amygdala reactivity and neuroendocrine responses to psychosocial stress. Given these stress regulatory effects, there is increasing interest in understanding the role of oxytocin in vulnerability to stress-related clinical disorders. The present study examines the impact of a common functional variant within the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene (rs2254298) on structure and function of the amygdala in a high-risk sample of urban, low-income, minority youth with a high incidence of early life stress (ELS). Compared to G/G homozygotes, youth carrying the OXTR A-allele showed increased amygdala volume, reduced behavioral performance, and heightened amygdala response during two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tasks that involved viewing socially-relevant face stimuli. Higher amygdala response was related to ELS in A-allele carriers but not G/G homozygotes. These findings underscore a series of relations among a common oxytocin system gene variant, ELS exposure, and structure and function of the amygdala in early life. Heightened amygdala response to salient social cues in OXTR A-allele carriers may elevate risk for emotional psychopathology by increasing amygdala involvement in disambiguating environmental cues, particularly for individuals with ELS.
Keywords: Depression; Early stress; Genetics; Limbic; Stroop.
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