BDNF, relative preference, and reward circuitry responses to emotional communication

Gasic GP, Smoller JW, Perlis RH, Sun M, Lee S, Kim BW, Lee MJ, Holt DJ, Blood AJ, Makris N, Kennedy DK, Hoge RD, Calhoun J, Fava M, Gusella JF, Breiter HC

Am. J. Med. Genet. B Neuropsychiatr. Genet. 2009 Sep;150B(6):762-81

PMID: 19388013


Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) regulates neural development and synaptic transmission. We have tested the hypothesis that functional variation in the BDNF gene (Val66Met polymorphism, rs6265) affects brain reward circuitry encoding human judgment and decision-making regarding relative preference. We quantified relative preference among faces with emotional expressions (angry, fearful, sad, neutral, and happy) by a keypress procedure performed offline to measure effort traded for viewing time. Keypress-based relative preferences across the ensemble of faces were mirrored significantly by fMRI signal in the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus when passively viewing these faces. For these three brain regions, there was also a statistically significant group difference by BDNF genotype in the fMRI responses to the emotional expressions. In comparison with Val/Met heterozygotes, Val/Val individuals preferentially sought exposure to positive emotions (e.g., happy faces) and had stronger regional fMRI activation to aversive stimuli (e.g., angry, fearful, and sad faces). BDNF genotype accounted for approximately 30% of the variance in fMRI signal that mirrors keypress responses to these stimuli. This study demonstrates that functional allelic variation in BDNF modulates human brain circuits processing reward/aversion information and relative preference transactions.