Prairie voles, which form monogamous bonds for life, are often studied as a source of information about social attachment. New findings indicate that these mating choices are regulated by epigenetics.
Epigenetics refers to changes in genes that do not affect the inherited sequence of DNA, but affect how easily the DNA is transcribed to produce proteins. Environmental events such as stress or exposure to chemicals can bring about epigenetic changes by adding or subtracting acetyl or methyl groups from strands of DNA or the histones around which it is wound.
When prairie voles mate naturally, levels of oxytocin, often thought of as the “bonding hormone,” increase in the reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens. When voles are given a drug that increases histone acetylation, their behavior mimics natural partner preference. The drug, known as a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor, blocks the removal of acetyl groups, and researchers Wang et al. reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2013 that oxytocin levels increase in the nucleus accumbens. The voles receive the drug and mate for life, suggesting that social bonding is epigenetically regulated.
Similar epigenetic alterations may play a role in human social bonding and vulnerability to depression. Depressed mothers and their offspring have low levels of oxytocin in their blood, and maternal depression is a risk factor for depression in the offspring, as reported by Apter-Levy et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2013.
Editor’s Note: Perhaps depressed moms who show reduced physical and verbal interactions with their newborns should receive special training in holding, cuddling, cooing, and other social bonding activities that could increase their infants’ oxytocin levels and potentially also decrease their own anxiety and depression.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) keeps neurons healthy and is critical for long-term memory and synapse formation. BDNF levels increase in the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s reward center) and decrease in the hippocampus during clinical depression and chronic cocaine use. In rodents, the same changes in BDNF levels occur during defeat stress (which resembles human depression).
Rodents who are repeatedly defeated by a larger rodent exhibit behaviors such as social withdrawal, lethargy, and decreased interest in sucrose. The increases in BDNF in the nucleus accumbens of these rodents could reflect the learning that takes place during the repeated defeat stress and the depression-like behaviors that follow it. Blocking the BDNF increases in the nucleus accumbens prevents these behaviors from developing.
Chadi Abdallah and other researchers at Yale University recently found that the left nucleus accumbens of patients with treatment-resistant depression is enlarged compared to normal controls, and the drug ketamine, which produces rapid-onset antidepressant effects, rapidly decreases the volume of the nucleus accumbens in the depressed patients. The mechanism by which it does so is unknown, but could reflect some suppression of the depressive learning.
Any relationship between the volume of the nucleus accumbens and its levels of BDNF is unknown, but ketamine’s effect on the size of this brain region could be linked to a decrease in the defeat-stress memories.
George Koob, the new director of the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), showed that animals with extended access to self-administered abuse substances like cocaine or morphine will escalate the amount of drug they self-administer. When the drug is no longer available starting after a delay of one to two weeks, the number of times they press a lever in the presence of a cue previously associated with drug availability progressively increases over a period of one to two months (even through no drug is available). This is called incubation and reflects a measure of “craving” or relapse potential.
This incubation effect, or increasing degree of craving for a drug, is also seen clinically in people who are heavy drug users and then achieve abstinence or are incarcerated and have a period of forced abstinence. As the duration of abstinence increases, they experience an increased proneness to relapse.
Dynorphin is a psychomimetic opiate peptide that is produced in the brain and causes anxiety and dysphoria when it is given to humans. While opiates like morphine and heroin that produce euphoria and antipain effects act at a mu opiate receptor, dynorphin acts at a kappa opiate receptor. Chronic cocaine use gradually increases levels of dynorphin in the brains of addicts and also increases kappa receptors, thus converting what is often initially a euphoric drug experience into an anxiety-producing and dysphoric one.
If kappa receptors are blocked, the incubation effects during abstinence described above do not occur, and presumably addicts would be less relapse-prone. No kappa antagonist is currently available for human use, but if one combines buprenorphine (a mixed opiate agonist/antagonist) with naloxone or naltrexone (which selectively block the mu opiate receptors), one would in effect have a kappa receptor antagonist. Koob showed that this drug combination could prevent the incubation effects in abstinent animals. Further study might lead to advances in the treatment of addition in humans.
Certain drugs such as ketamine and memantine that work by blocking activity at the NMDA receptor for the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate have antidepressant effects. D-cycloserine is a drug that has a related mechanism and is being studied as an antidepressant. At high doses the drug acts as an antagonist at the glycine site of the NMDA receptor, blocking glycine’s ability to facilitate glutamate transmission through the receptor.
Joshua Kantrowitz, a researcher at Columbia University, reported at a recent scientific meeting that the rapid-onset antidepressant effects of D-cycloserine could be maintained for eight weeks. Similar findings were published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2010 and were reported in another study by Uriel Heresco-Levy in a 2013 article in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is important for the development of long-term memory. However, glutamate overactivity may contribute to depression. Decreasing this overactivity (with ketamine, memantine, or D-cycloserine) may produce antidepressant effects.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Andrew H. Miller presented data on infliximab, an inhibitor of the inflammatory cytokine TNF alpha that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is being explored for the treatment of depression. As previously reported in BNN Volume 16, Issue 2 from 2012, the drug was not effective overall among the depressed patients, but in a subgroup of patients with high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP, infliximab was highly effective. Miller emphasized that patients do not fail to respond to treatments; it is doctors who fail, or drugs that fail. He explained that there is tremendous heterogeneity in people’s illnesses, and doctors must get better at sorting out what treatments will work for each patient, striving toward personalized therapeutics.
There are many clinical correlates or predictors of nonresponse to antidepressants used in unipolar depression. These include inflammation, obesity, stress in childhood, anxiety disorder comorbidity, substance abuse comorbidity, and medical comorbidity.
Editor’s Note: How do we doctors target these clinical correlates of illness for better therapeutic effects? We are just starting to learn, and until we identify good markers for predicting illness, the best we can do is carry out carefully sequenced clinical trials of medications and therapies with different mechanisms of action.
Patients can assist their physicians and clinicians by engaging in precise, preferably nightly charting of their mood, functioning, medications, life events, side effects, and other symptoms such as anxiety on a personal calendar. Several of these are available for free download, and there are other longitudinal screening instruments, such as the website and app What’s My M3.
A good personal response to a novel treatment or a poor response to an Federal Drug Administration–approved treatment trumps anything that is written in the research literature. The best way to achieve the best outcome is to engage in excellent monitoring of symptoms and side effects that can guide the next steps in therapeutics.
Allopregnanolone, a natural metabolite of the gondal steroid progesterone, is a neurosteroid that acts as a positive modulator of synaptic and extrasynaptic GABA-A receptors and exerts effects without the development of tolerance.
Researcher Mike Rogawski at the University of California, Davis developed an intravenous formulation of allopregnanolone that is being studied as a treatment for traumatic brain injury. The formulation was provided on an emergency use basis to stop treatment-resistant status epilepticus (non-stop seizures) in patients in intensive care who had been unresponsive to all medications and were placed in a barbiturate coma. When barbiturates were stopped, their seizures returned. All four intensive care patients who were treated with allopregnanolone had their status epilepticus cease and were able to go home. This included a 23-year-old who had been hospitalized with refractory status epilepticus for over 90 days.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is involved in various aspects of learning and memory. The DNA for BDNF contains nine different regulatory sites, each of which is involved in different aspects of learning. Researcher Keri Martinovich studied each site by selectively knocking each one out with a genetic manipulation. She found that blocking the e1 site increased acquisition of new learning and recall in mice, while e2 did the opposite. Blockade of e4 had no effect on these memory functions but markedly blocked the process of extinction, which involves a different kind of new learning.
A mouse that learned to associate a particular cue with a shock (a process known as conditioned fear) will stop reacting to the cue after it is presented many times without a shock. This learning that the cue is no longer associated with the shock is referred to as extinction. The animals with e4 blocked in their BDNF did not develop the new extinction learning, and continued to react to the cue as if it were still associated with the shock.
Editor’s Note: These data may have clinical relevance for humans. The anticonvulsant valproate (trade name Depakote), a histone deacetylase inhibitor, selectively increases the e4 promoter site of BDNF and facilitates extinction of conditioned fear, according to research by Tim Bredy et al. published in 2010.
Clinical trails should examine whether valproate could enhance fear extinction in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
We sometimes refer to epigenetics, a process by which the environment impacts not your inherited genes (based on the DNA nucleotides that encode amino acids to be sequenced in the production of proteins), but how easy it is to activate gene transcription or repress gene transcription.
There are various epigenetic modifications that can occur. Sometimes acetyl or methyl groups are added to DNA or the histones around which DNA is wound.
1. DNA Methylation (usually repressive)
2. Histone Methylation (usually repressive)
3. Histone Acetylation (usually activating)
4. DNA hydroxymethylation
5. Micro RNAs (si-mRNA) (repressing or activating)
6. Nucleosome remodeling by chromatin regulatory enzymes. If the histone spools around which DNA is wrapped are moved further apart, this is activating. If the histones are moved closer together, this is repressing.
At a recent scientific meeting, Rachael Yehada showed that PTSD-like traits could be passed transgenerationally. Mothers in New York City who were pregnant on September 11, 2001 and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) produced children with low cortisol in their blood (a sign of PTSD). If the fathers had PTSD during the mother’s pregnancy, the children had high cortisol.
These gender-related findings have some parallels in studies of rodents. When a rat pup is separated from its mother for 15 minutes, the mother is overjoyed to see the pup return and licks and grooms it excessively. This maternal overprotection yields an animal with lifelong low cortisol through an epigenetic process. The glucocorticoid receptor gives a feedback message to suppress cortisol, and glucocorticoid receptors are increased in the pups’ brains because of lower methylation of the DNA promoter for glucocorticoid receptors.
If a father has PTSD, there is more methylation of the promoter for glucocorticoid receptors and less expression of them in the forebrain. There is also less feedback suppression of cortisol and the baby exhibits high cortisol.
The methylation of the glucocorticoid receptors in the offspring’s white blood cells is highly correlated (r=0.57, p<0.005, n=23) with methylation in the parent’s white blood cells.
Repeated social defeat stress (when an intruder mouse is repeatedly threatened by a larger mouse defending its home territory) is often used as a model to study human depression. Animals repeatedly exposed to social defeat stress start to exhibit depression-like behaviors such as social avoidance and loss of interest in sucrose. Georgia Hodes, a researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, reported at a recent scientific meeting that repeated defeat stress–induced behavior was blocked when IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine released by white blood cells in the blood, was inhibited. The central nervous system did not appear to be involved.
Interestingly, mice with more white blood cells and more IL-6 release at baseline (prior to the social defeat stress) were more likely to show the defeat-stress depressive behaviors.
Editor’s Note: The higher number and greater reactivity of white blood cells seen in these mice could be a clinical marker of vulnerability to defeat stress, and such findings are worthy of study in human depression. White blood cells are critical to fighting infection and sometimes their overactivity can contribute to inflammation. In meta-analyses, a subgroup of depressed patients consistently show elevated inflammatory markers (including IL-1, IL-6, TNF alpha, and CRP), and it remains to be seen whether these markers of inflammation are generated in the central nervous system or come from white blood cells in the blood, and whether their targeted suppression could be a new route to antidepressant effects (as in the study of defeat stress in mice).