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The relationship between childhood abuse and dissociation. Is it influenced by catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) activity?

  • Jonathan B. Savitz (a1), Lize van der Merwe (a2), Timothy K. Newman (a3), Mark Solms (a4), Dan J. Stein (a3) and Rajkumar S. Ramesar (a1)...

Dissociation is a failure of perceptual, memorial and emotional integration that is associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders. Dissociative processes are usually attributed to the sequelae of childhood trauma although there are data to suggest that genetic influences are also important. Bipolar disorder (BD), a condition with a strong genetic basis, has also been associated with early psychological trauma. Since childhood trauma is a risk factor for both BD and dissociation, we tested for potential gene–childhood abuse interactions on dissociation in a pilot sample of BD probands and their affected and unaffected relatives (n=178). Dissociation was measured with the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES II) and childhood maltreatment with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). The BD and recurrent unipolar depression (MDE-R) groups showed higher levels of self-reported abuse and dissociation than their unaffected relatives. The low-activity Met allele of the Val66Met polymorphism of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene was associated with lower levels of self-reported dissociation. Further, the functional catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) Val158Met polymorphism interacted significantly with total CTQ abuse scores to impact perceived dissociation. The Val/Val genotype was associated with increasing levels of dissociation in participants exposed to higher levels of childhood trauma. The opposite was observed in people with Met/Met genotypes who displayed decreased dissociation with increasing self-reported childhood trauma. The current findings support the involvement of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism in mediating the relationship between trauma and psychopathology.

Corresponding author
Correspondence: Dr J. B. Savitz, MRC/UCT Human Genetics Research Unit, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Tel.: 301 594 1427Fax: 301 594 1427E-mail:
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