Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Small DNA modifications predict brain's threat response

Date:
August 3, 2014
Source:
Duke University
Summary:
Epigenetic changes to a gene that is well known for its involvement in clinical depression and posttraumatic stress disorder can affect the way a person's brain reacts to threats, according to a new study. The results may explain how the well-understood serotonin transporter leaves some individuals more vulnerable than others to stress and stress-related psychiatric disorders.

An artist's conception shows how molecules called methyl groups attach to a specific stretch of DNA, changing expression of the serotonin transporter gene in a way that ultimately shapes individual differences in the brain's reactivity to threat. The methyl groups in this diagram are overlaid on the amygdala of the brain, where threat perception occurs.
Credit: Annchen Knodt, Duke University

The tiny addition of a chemical mark atop a gene that is well known for its involvement in clinical depression and posttraumatic stress disorder can affect the way a person's brain responds to threats, according to a new study by Duke University researchers.

Related Articles


The results, which appear online August 3 in Nature Neuroscience, go beyond genetics to help explain why some individuals may be more vulnerable than others to stress and stress-related psychiatric disorders.

The study focused on the serotonin transporter, a molecule that regulates the amount of serotonin signaling between brain cells and is a major target for treatment of depression and mood disorders. In the 1990s, scientists discovered that differences in the DNA sequence of the serotonin transporter gene seemed to give some individuals exaggerated responses to stress, including the development of depression.

Sitting on top of the serotonin transporter's DNA (and studding the entire genome), are chemical marks called methyl groups that help regulate where and when a gene is active, or expressed. DNA methylation is one form of epigenetic modification being studied by scientists trying to understand how the same genetic code can produce so many different cells and tissues as well as differences between individuals as closely related as twins.

In looking for methylation differences, "we decided to start with the serotonin transporter because we know a lot about it biologically, pharmacologically, behaviorally, and it's one of the best characterized genes in neuroscience," said senior author Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

"If we're going to make claims about the importance of epigenetics in the human brain, we wanted to start with a gene that we have a fairly good understanding of," Hariri said.

This work is part of the ongoing Duke Neurogenetics Study (DNS), a comprehensive study linking genes, brain activity and other biological markers to risk for mental illness in young adults.

The group performed non-invasive brain imaging in the first 80 college-aged participants of the DNS, showing them pictures of angry or fearful faces and watching the responses of a deep brain region called the amygdala, which helps shape our behavioral and biological responses to threat and stress.

The team also measured the amount of methylation on serotonin transporter DNA isolated from the participants' saliva, in collaboration with Karestan Koenen at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

The greater the methylation of an individual's serotonin transporter gene, the greater the reactivity of the amygdala, the study found. Increased amygdala reactivity may in turn contribute to an exaggerated stress response and vulnerability to stress-related disorders.

To the group's surprise, even small methylation variations between individuals were sufficient to create differences between individuals' amygdala reactivity, said lead author Yuliya Nikolova, a graduate student in Hariri's group. The amount of methylation was a better predictor of amygdala activity than DNA sequence variation, which had previously been associated with risk for depression and anxiety.

The team was excited about the discovery but also cautious, Hariri said, because there have been many findings in genetics that were never replicated.

That's why they jumped at the chance to look for the same pattern in a different set of participants, this time in the Teen Alcohol Outcomes Study (TAOS) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Working with TAOS director, Douglas Williamson, the group again measured amygdala reactivity to angry and fearful faces as well as methylation of the serotonin transporter gene isolated from blood in 96 adolescents between 11 and 15 years old. The analyses revealed an even stronger link between methylation and amygdala reactivity.

"Now over 10 percent of the differences in amygdala function mapped onto these small differences in methylation," Hariri said. The DNS study had found just under 7 percent.

Taking the study one step further, the group also analyzed patterns of methylation in the brains of dead people in collaboration with Etienne Sibille at the University of Pittsburgh, now at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Once again, they saw that methylation of a single spot in the serotonin transporter gene was associated with lower levels of serotonin transporter expression in the amygdala.

"That's when we thought, 'Alright, this is pretty awesome,'" Hariri said.

Hariri said the work reveals a compelling mechanistic link: Higher methylation is generally associated with less reading of the gene, and that's what they saw. He said methylation dampens expression of the gene, which then affects amygdala reactivity, presumably by altering serotonin signaling.

The researchers would now like to see how methylation of this specific bit of DNA affects the brain. In particular, this region of the gene might serve as a landing place for cellular machinery that binds to the DNA and reads it, Nikolova said.

The group also plans to look at methylation patterns of other genes in the serotonin system that may contribute to the brain's response to threatening stimuli.

The fact that serotonin transporter methylation patterns were similar in saliva, blood and brain also suggests that these patterns may be passed down through generations rather than acquired by individuals based on their own experiences.

Hariri said he hopes that other researchers looking for biomarkers of mental illness will begin to consider methylation above and beyond DNA sequence-based variation and across different tissues.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Duke University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Yuliya S Nikolova, Karestan C Koenen, Sandro Galea, Chiou-Miin Wang, Marianne L Seney, Etienne Sibille, Douglas E Williamson, Ahmad R Hariri. Beyond genotype: serotonin transporter epigenetic modification predicts human brain function. Nature Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nn.3778

Cite This Page:

Duke University. "Small DNA modifications predict brain's threat response." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140803193646.htm>.
Duke University. (2014, August 3). Small DNA modifications predict brain's threat response. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 29, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140803193646.htm
Duke University. "Small DNA modifications predict brain's threat response." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140803193646.htm (accessed November 29, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Health & Medicine News

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Rural India's Low-Cost Sanitary Pad Revolution

Rural India's Low-Cost Sanitary Pad Revolution

AFP (Nov. 28, 2014) — One man hopes his invention -– a machine that produces cheap sanitary pads –- will help empower Indian women. Duration: 01:51 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Research on Bats Could Help Develop Drugs Against Ebola

Research on Bats Could Help Develop Drugs Against Ebola

AFP (Nov. 28, 2014) — In Africa's only biosafety level 4 laboratory, scientists have been carrying out experiments on bats to understand how virus like Ebola are being transmitted, and how some of them resist to it. Duration: 01:18 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
WHO Says Male Ebola Survivors Should Abstain From Sex

WHO Says Male Ebola Survivors Should Abstain From Sex

Newsy (Nov. 28, 2014) — WHO cites four studies that say Ebola can still be detected in semen up to 82 days after the onset of symptoms. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Leaves Orphans Alone in Sierra Leone

Ebola Leaves Orphans Alone in Sierra Leone

AFP (Nov. 27, 2014) — The Ebola epidemic sweeping Sierra Leone is having a profound effect on the country's children, many of whom have been left without any family members to support them. Duration: 01:02 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins