Childhood adversity, epigenetics, and hippocampal volume

September 26, 2014 · Posted in Genetics, Risk Factors 

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At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Booij reported that in humans, there is an interaction between adversity experienced during childhood, and an epigenetic variation in the short form of the serotonin transporter (5HT-T ss, or SLC6A4), which can influence hippocampal volume during depression.

Epigenetics refers to environmental influences on the way genes are transcribed. The impact of life experiences such as stress is not registered in DNA sequences, but can influence the structure of DNA or tightness of its packaging. Early life experiences, particularly psychosocial stress, can lead to the accumulation of methyl groups on DNA (a process called methylation), which generally constricts DNA’s ability to start transcription (turning on) of genes and the synthesis of the proteins the genes encode. DNA is tightly wound around proteins called histones, which can also be methylated or acetylated based on events in the environment.  When histones are acetylated, meaning that acetyl groups are attached to them, DNA is wound around them more loosely, facilitating gene transcription (i.e. the reading out of the DNA code into messenger RNA, which then arranges amino acids in order to construct proteins). Conversely, histone methylation usually tightens the winding of DNA and represses transcription.

Booij followed 33 children who had experienced some form of adversity at a young age until they were 15 or 16, examining methylation of the serotonin transporter in their T cells and monocytes compared to 36 children who had not experienced adversity during childhood. He found that in children who had experienced abuse in childhood, the degree of that abuse was correlated with methylation of the serotonin transporter and was inversely related to the volume of the hippocampus, as measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Thus, child abuse yields lasting epigenetic effects (methylation of the serotonin transporter) and has anatomical consequences in teenagers, as seen in smaller hippocampi. These data parallel converse findings by Joan Luby et al. published in the journal PNAS in 2012, in which increased maternal warmth directed toward a child aged 4-7 was associated with increased volume of the hippocampus several years later.


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