Applying Epigenetics

Learning Objectives

  • Describe epigenetics
  • Provide examples of epigenetic effects on cognitive behavior
Picture of a double-helix strand of DNA.

DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, and although each person’s DNA is unique to that individual, it is 99.9% similar to every other human on the planet. [Image: Caroline Davis2010]

Early life experiences exert a profound and long-lasting influence on physical and mental health throughout life. The efforts to identify the primary causes of this have significantly benefited from studies of the epigenome—a dynamic layer of information associated with DNA that differs between individuals and can be altered through various experiences and environments. The epigenome has been heralded as a key “missing piece” of the etiological puzzle for understanding how development of psychological disorders may be influenced by the surrounding environment, in concordance with the genome. Understanding the mechanisms involved in the initiation, maintenance, and heritability of epigenetic states is thus an important aspect of research in current biology, particularly in the study of learning and memory, emotion, and social behavior in humans. Moreover, epigenetics in psychology provides a framework for understanding how the expression of genes is influenced by experiences and the environment to produce individual differences in behavior, cognition, personality, and mental health. In this module, we survey recent developments revealing epigenetic aspects of mental health and review some of the challenges of epigenetic approaches in psychology to help explain how nurture shapes nature.

Molecular control of gene expression: the dynamic epigenome

Almost all the cells in our body are genetically identical, yet our body generates many different cell types, organized into different tissues and organs, and expresses different proteins. Within each type of mammalian cell, about 2 meters of genomic DNA is divided into nuclear chromosomes. Yet the nucleus of a human cell, which contains the chromosomes, is only about 2 μm in diameter. To achieve this 1,000,000-fold compaction, DNA is wrapped around a group of 8 proteins called histones. This combination of DNA and histone proteins forms a special structure called a “nucleosome,” the basic unit of chromatin, which represents a structural solution for maintaining and accessing the tightly compacted genome. These factors alter the likelihood that a gene will be expressed or silenced. Cellular functions such as gene expression, DNA replication, and the generation of specific cell types are therefore influenced by distinct patterns of chromatin structure, involving covalent modification of both histones (Kadonaga, 1998) and DNA (Razin, 1998).

Identical twin toddler girls laying in the snow, wearing pick snowsuits.

Figure 1. Identical twins are the perfect example of epigenetics. Although they share exactly the same DNA, their unique experiences in life will cause some genes (and not others) to express themselves. This is why, over time, identical twins come to look and behave differently. [Image: Inese Dunajeva]

Importantly, epigenetic variation also emerges across the lifespan. For example, although identical twins share a common genotype and are genetically identical and epigenetically similar when they are young, as they age they become more dissimilar in their epigenetic patterns and often display behavioral, personality, or even physical differences, and have different risk levels for serious illness. Thus, understanding the structure of the nucleosome is key to understanding the precise and stable control of gene expression and regulation, providing a molecular interface between genes and environmentally induced changes in cellular activity.

Parental investment and programming of stress responses in the offspring

The most comprehensive study to date of variations in parental investment and epigenetic inheritance in mammals is that of the maternally transmitted responses to stress in rats. In rat pups, maternal nurturing (licking and grooming) during the first week of life is associated with long-term programming of individual differences in stress responsiveness, emotionality, cognitive performance, and reproductive behavior (Caldji et al., 1998; Francis, Diorio, Liu, & Meaney, 1999; Liu et al., 1997; Myers, Brunelli, Shair, Squire, & Hofer, 1989; Stern, 1997). In adulthood, the offspring of mothers that exhibit increased levels of pup licking and grooming over the first week of life show increased expression of the glucocorticoid receptor in the hippocampus (a brain structure associated with stress responsivity as well as learning and memory) and a lower hormonal response to stress compared with adult animals reared by low licking and grooming mothers (Francis et al., 1999; Liu et al., 1997). Moreover, rat pups that received low levels of maternal licking and grooming during the first week of life showed decreased histone acetylation and increased DNA methylation of a neuron-specific promoter of the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Weaver et al., 2004). The expression of this gene is then reduced, the number of glucocorticoid receptors in the brain is decreased, and the animals show a higher hormonal response to stress throughout their life. The effects of maternal care on stress hormone responses and behaviour in the offspring can be eliminated in adulthood by pharmacological treatment (HDAC inhibitor trichostatin A, TSA) or dietary amino acid supplementation (methyl donor L-methionine), treatments that influence histone acetylation, DNA methylation, and expression of the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Weaver et al., 2004;Weaver et al., 2005). This series of experiments shows that histone acetylation and DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter is a necessary link in the process leading to the long-term physiological and behavioral sequelae of poor maternal care. This points to a possible molecular target for treatments that may reverse or ameliorate the traces of childhood maltreatment.

African mother in colorful, traditional dress, carrying her young child. Both are happy and smiling.

Figure 2. Parental care during one’s childhood has important and consequential effects on the development of an individual, effects that persist even into adulthood. [Image: UNICEF Ethiopia]

Several studies have attempted to determine to what extent the findings from model animals are transferable to humans. Examination of post-mortem brain tissue from healthy human subjects found that the human equivalent of the glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter (NR3C1 exon 1F promoter) is also unique to the individual (Turner, Pelascini, Macedo, & Muller, 2008). A similar study examining newborns showed that methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter maybe an early epigenetic marker of maternal mood and risk of increased hormonal responses to stress in infants 3 months of age (Oberlander et al., 2008).

Although further studies are required to examine the functional consequence of this DNA methylation, these findings are consistent with our studies in the neonate and adult offspring of low licking and grooming mothers that show increased DNA methylation of the promoter of the glucocorticoid receptor gene, decreased glucocorticoid receptor gene expression, and increased hormonal responses to stress (Weaver et al., 2004).

Examination of brain tissue from suicide victims found that the human glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter is also more methylated in the brains of individuals who had experienced maltreatment during childhood (McGowan et al., 2009). These finding suggests that DNA methylation mediates the effects of early environment in both rodents and humans and points to the possibility of new therapeutic approaches stemming from translational epigenetic research. Indeed, similar processes at comparable epigenetic labile regions could explain why the adult offspring of high and low licking/grooming mothers exhibit widespread differences in hippocampal gene expression and cognitive function (Weaver, Meaney, & Szyf, 2006). However, this type of research is limited by the inaccessibility of human brain samples. The translational potential of this finding would be greatly enhanced if the relevant epigenetic modification can be measured in an accessible tissue.

Examination of blood samples from adult patients with bipolar disorder, who also retrospectively reported on their experiences of childhood abuse and neglect, found that the degree of DNA methylation of the human glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter was strongly positively related to the reported experience of childhood maltreatment decades earlier. For a relationship between a molecular measure and reported historical exposure, the effects size is extraordinarily large. This opens a range of new possibilities: given the large effect size and consistency of this association, measurement of the GR promoter methylation may effectively become a blood test measuring the physiological traces left on the genome by early experiences. Although this blood test cannot replace current methods of diagnosis, this unique and addition information adds to our knowledge of how disease may arise and be manifested throughout life. Near-future research will examine whether this measure adds value over and above simple reporting of early adversities when it comes to predicting important outcomes, such as response to treatment or suicide.

Child nutrition and the epigenome

Young children work together to make a salad at the lunch table.

Figure 3. Whether or not your parents knew the science behind it, telling you to eat your veggies as a kid really does make you healthier and stronger—at least your DNA, that is. [Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture]

The old adage “you are what you eat” might be true on more than just a physical level: The food you choose (and even what your parents and grandparents chose) is reflected in your own personal development and risk for disease in adult life (Wells, 2003). Nutrients can reverse or change DNA methylation and histone modifications, thereby modifying the expression of critical genes associated with physiologic and pathologic processes, including embryonic development, aging, and carcinogenesis. It appears that nutrients can influence the epigenome either by directly inhibiting enzymes that catalyze DNA methylation or histone modifications, or by altering the availability of substrates necessary for those enzymatic reactions. For example, rat mothers fed a diet low in methyl group donors during pregnancy produce offspring with reduced DNMT-1 expression, decreased DNA methylation, and increased histone acetylation at promoter regions of specific genes, including the glucocorticoid receptor, and increased gene expression in the liver of juvenile offspring (Lillycrop, Phillips, Jackson, Hanson, & Burdge, 2005) and adult offspring (Lillycrop et al., 2007).

These data suggest that early life nutrition has the potential to influence epigenetic programming in the brain not only during early development but also in adult life, thereby modulating health throughout life. In this regard, nutritional epigenetics has been viewed as an attractive tool to prevent pediatric developmental diseases and cancer, as well as to delay aging-associated processes.

The best evidence relating to the impact of adverse environmental conditions development and health comes from studies of the children of women who were pregnant during two civilian famines of World War II: the Siege of Leningrad (1941–44) (Bateson, 2001) and the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944–1945) (Stanner et al., 1997). In the Netherlands famine, women who were previously well nourished were subjected to low caloric intake and associated environmental stressors. Women who endured the famine in the late stages of pregnancy gave birth to smaller babies (Lumey & Stein, 1997) and these children had an increased risk of insulin resistance later in life (Painter, Roseboom, & Bleker, 2005). In addition, offspring who were starved prenatally later experienced impaired glucose tolerance in adulthood, even when food was more abundant (Stanner et al., 1997). Famine exposure at various stages of gestation was associated with a wide range of risks such as increased obesity, higher rates of coronary heart disease, and lower birth weight (Lumey & Stein, 1997). Interestingly, when examined 60 years later, people exposed to famine prenatally showed reduced DNA methylation compared with their unexposed same-sex siblings (Heijmans et al., 2008).

Epigenetic mechanisms in psychological disorders

Chromatin, which looks like a curled piece of paper, or curly strands of noodles.

Figure 4. Pictured above is a chromatin, the spiral-looking macromolecule involved in depression. [Image: Zephyris]

Epigenome-wide studies have identified several dozen sites with DNA methylation alterations in genes involved in brain development and neurotransmitter pathways, which had previously been associated with mental illness (Mill et al., 2008). These disorders are complex and typically start at a young age and cause lifelong disability. Often, limited benefits from treatment make these diseases some of the most burdensome disorders for individuals, families, and society. It has become evident that the efforts to identify the primary causes of complex psychiatric disorders may significantly benefit from studies linking environmental effects with changes observed within the individual cells.

Epigenetic events that alter chromatin structure to regulate programs of gene expression have been associated with depression-related behavior and action of antidepressant medications, with increasing evidence for similar mechanisms occurring in post-mortem brains of depressed individuals. In mice, social avoidance resulted in decreased expression of hippocampal genes important in mediating depressive responses (Tsankova et al., 2006). Similarly, chronic social defeat stress was found to decrease expression of genes implicated in normal emotion processing (Lutter et al., 2008). Consistent with these findings, levels of histone markers of increased gene expression were down regulated in human post-mortem brain samples from individuals with a history of clinical depression (Covington et al., 2009). Administration of antidepressants increased histone markers of increased gene expression and reversed the gene repression induced by defeat stress (Lee, Wynder, Schmidt, McCafferty, & Shiekhattar, 2006; Tsankova et al., 2006; Wilkinson et al., 2009). These results provide support for the use of HDAC inhibitors against depression. Accordingly, several HDAC inhibitors have been found to exert antidepressant effects by each modifying distinct cellular targets (Cassel et al., 2006; Schroeder, Lin, Crusio, & Akbarian, 2007). There is also increasing evidence that aberrant gene expression resulting from altered epigenetic regulation is associated with the pathophysiology of suicide (McGowan et al., 2008;Poulter et al., 2008). Thus, it is tempting to speculate that there is an epigenetically determined reduced capacity for gene expression, which is required for learning and memory, in the brains of suicide victims.

Glossary

epigenome: a dynamic layer of information associated with DNA that differs between individuals and can be altered through various experiences and environments