SLC6A4 gene variants moderate associations between childhood food insecurity and adolescent mental health

S. Pilkay, M. Nolasco, S. Nunes, A. Riffer, D. Femia, D. Halevy, T. Veerman, S. Heiland, N. Suwannimit, N. Trexler, B. Gump

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Food insecurity is a persistent concern in the United States and has been shown to affect child mental health and behavior. The SLC6A4 gene has been indicated as a moderator of the effects of chronic stress on anxiety in adolescents aged 14–21. However, it is unclear if SLC6A4 may also play a role in the effects of childhood food insecurity, a form of chronic stress, on adolescent mental health. This study aimed to identify effects of food insecurity on adolescents’ mental health and delinquent behavior when both mom and child go hungry in the child's early years, and the potential interaction with SLC6A4 variants (SS/LL). Methods: The data and sample for this research are from the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The cohort consists of 4898 children (age 1–15 years, male = 47%, African American = 50%) and their respective caregivers sampled from large cities in the United States from 1998 to 2000. Results: The SLC6A4 serotonin transporter short/short allele emerged statistically significant as a moderator of childhood food insecurity and adolescent mental health. Specifically, the presence of the short/short allele increased anxiety symptoms in adolescents with exposure to food insecurity in childhood. Conclusion: The SLC6A4 short/short allele amplifies risk of anxiety-related mental illness when children experience food insecurity. The gene–environment interaction provides insight into the mechanistic pathway of the effects of poverty-related adversity, such as food insecurity, on developmental trajectories of mental health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3426
JournalBrain and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • SLC6A4
  • adolescence
  • anxiety
  • food insecurity
  • gene–environment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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