BDNF Val⁶⁶Met polymorphism to generalized anxiety disorder pathways: Indirect effects via attenuated parasympathetic stress-relaxation reactivity

J Abnorm Psychol. 2020 Apr;129(3):237-247. doi: 10.1037/abn0000507. Epub 2020 Feb 20.


The valine⁶⁶methionine (Val⁶⁶Met) polymorphism (rs6265) of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene has been shown to influence autonomic arousal pathways, which in turn predict elevated syndromal anxiety in healthy humans. We examined whether the BDNF variant is associated with an increased risk of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), one of the most prevalent anxiety disorders, through altering parasympathetic stress/relaxation reactivity. A total of 2,250 Han Chinese adults (750 GAD patients and 1,500 healthy controls) were included in the genotyping. High-frequency heart rate variability, an index of vagal (parasympathetic) activity, was measured during the supine-standing-supine test (5 min in each position); vagal withdrawal and vagal activation were calculated as baseline supine minus standing and recovery supine minus standing, respectively. Analysis of healthy participants indicated that Val/Val homozygotes displayed significantly blunted vagal withdrawal and vagal activation compared with Met allele carriers. After analyzing the entire sample, these effects remained significant. Furthermore, both attenuated vagal response patterns were found to be significantly associated with a higher incidence of GAD. Lastly, the path analysis identified a significant indirect effect of BDNF on the risk of GAD via diminishing vagal response to either orthostatic stress or supine relaxation. Even when further testing the subsample comprising only comorbidity- and medication-free GAD patients and healthy controls to minimize the confounding bias, the results still remained. Our findings demonstrate that individuals carrying the BDNF Val/Val genotype, compared to Met-carriers, may be at higher risk of GAD due to blunted vagal reactivity in response to both stress and relaxation. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alleles
  • Anxiety / genetics*
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety Disorders / genetics*
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics*
  • Female
  • Genotype*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • BDNF protein, human