Original Article

Citation: Translational Psychiatry (2012) 2, e150; doi:10.1038/tp.2012.77
Published online 14 August 2012

Dynamic changes in DNA methylation of stress-associated genes (OXTR, BDNF) after acute psychosocial stress
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E Unternaehrer1,6, P Luers2,6, J Mill3, E Dempster3, A H Meyer4, S Staehli1,2, R Lieb1, D H Hellhammer2 and G Meinlschmidt1,5

  1. 1Department of Psychology, Division of Clinical Psychology and Epidemiology, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  2. 2Department of Psychology, Division of Clinical and Physiological Psychology, University of Trier, Trier, Germany
  3. 3MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London, United Kingdom
  4. 4Department of Psychology, Division of Clinical Psychology and Epidemiology, Section of Applied Statistics in Life Sciences, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  5. 5Research Department of Psychobiology, Psychosomatics, and Psychotherapy, Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, LWL University Hospital, Ruhr-University Bochum, Bochum, Germany

Correspondence: Professor G Meinlschmidt, Research Department of Psychobiology, Psychosomatics, and Psychotherapy, Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, LWL University Hospital, Ruhr-University Bochum, Alexandrinenstrasse 1-3, D-44791 Bochum, Germany. E-mail: gunther.meinlschmidt@rub.de

6Shared first authorship.

Received 9 April 2012; Revised 18 June 2012; Accepted 4 July 2012

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Abstract

Environmentally induced epigenetic alterations are related to mental health. We investigated quantitative DNA methylation status before and after an acute psychosocial stressor in two stress-related genes: oxytocin receptor (OXTR) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The cross sectional study took place at the Division of Theoretical and Clinical Psychobiology, University of Trier, Germany and was conducted from February to August 2009. We included 83 participants aged 61–67 years. Thereof, 76 participants completed the full study procedure consisting of blood sampling before (pre-stress), 10min after (post-stress) and 90min after (follow-up) the Trier social stress test. We assessed quantitative DNA methylation of whole-blood cells using Sequenom EpiTYPER. Methylation status differed between sampling times in one target sequence of OXTR (P<0.001): methylation increased from pre- to post-stress (P=0.009) and decreased from post-stress to follow-up (P<0.001). This decrease was also found in a second target sequence of OXTR (P=0.034), where it lost statistical significance when blood cell count was statistically controlled. We did not detect any time-associated differences in methylation status of the examined BDNF region. The results suggest a dynamic regulation of DNA methylation in OXTR—which may in part reflect changes in blood cell composition—but not BDNF after acute psychosocial stress. This may enhance the understanding of how psychosocial events alter DNA methylation and could provide new insights into the etiology of mental disorders.

Keywords:

acute psychosocial stress; brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene (BDNF); dynamic DNA methylation; epigenetics; oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR)