Oxytocin receptor DNA methylation and alterations of brain volumes in maltreated children

Abstract

Although oxytocin (OXT) plays an important role in secure attachment formation with a primary caregiver, which is impaired in many children with childhood maltreatment (CM), epigenetic regulation in response to CM is a key factor in brain development during childhood. To address this issue, we first investigated differences in salivary DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) between CM and Non-CM groups of Japanese children (CM: n = 44; Non-CM: n = 41) and its impact on brain structures in subgroup analysis using brain imaging and full clinical data (CM: n = 24; Non-CM: n = 31). As a result, we observed that the CM group showed higher CpG 5,6 methylation than did the Non-CM group and confirmed negative correlations of gray matter volume (GMV) in the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) with CpG 5,6 methylation. In addition, the CM group showed significantly lower GMV in the left OFC than did the Non-CM group. Furthermore, as a result of examining the relationship between GMV in the left OFC and psychiatric symptoms in CM, we observed a negative association with insecure attachment style and also confirmed the mediation effect of left-OFC GMV reduction on the relationship between OXTR methylation and insecure attachment style. These results suggest that any modulation of the oxytocin signaling pathway induced by OXTR hypermethylation at CpG 5,6 leads to atypical development of the left OFC, resulting in distorted attachment formation in children with CM.

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Fujisawa, T.X., Nishitani, S., Takiguchi, S. et al. Oxytocin receptor DNA methylation and alterations of brain volumes in maltreated children. Neuropsychopharmacol. 44, 2045–2053 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-019-0414-8

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