Neurotransmitters Can Also Function As Epigenetic Marks

June 2, 2020 · Posted in Genetics, Peer-Reviewed Published Data · Comment 
lab rat

The most common epigenetic marks involve methylation of DNA (which usually inhibits gene transcription) and the acetylation and methylation of histones. Acetylation opens or loosens the winding of DNA around the histones and facilitates transcription, while methylation of histones leaves the DNA tightly wound and inhibits transcriptional activation.

Researcher Ashley E. Lepack and colleagues have identified a surprising type of epigenetic mechanism involving neurotransmitters. They report in a 2020 article in the journal Science that neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine can act as epigenetic marks. Dopamine can bind to histone H3, a process called called dopaminylation (H3Q5dop). In rats undergoing withdrawal from cocaine, Lepack and colleagues found increased levels of H3Q5dop in dopamine neurons in a part of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a part of the brain’s reward system. When the investigators reduced H3Q5dop, this decreased dopamine release in the reward area of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) and reduced cocaine seeking. Thus, dopamine can be both an important transmitter conveying messages between neurons and a chemical mark on histones that alters DNA binding and transcriptional regulation.

Researcher Jean-Antoine Girault provided commentary on the article by Lepack and colleagues, writing that “[t]he use of the same monoamine molecule as a neurotransmitter and a histone modification in the same cells illustrates that evolution proceeds by molecular tinkering, using available odds and ends to make innovations.”

Editor’s Note: Epigenetic marks may remain stable and influence behavior over long periods of time. They are involved in the increased reactivity or sensitization to repeated doses of cocaine through DNA methylation. Such sensitization can last over a period of months or longer. If the methylation inhibitor zebularine is given, animals fail to show sensitization. Now a newly identified epigenetic process, dopaminylation, is found to alter histones and is associated with long-term changes in cocaine-seeking.

The clinical message for a potential cocaine user is ominous. Cocaine not only creates a short-term “high,” but its repeated use rewires the brain not only at the level of changes in neurotransmitter release and receptor sensitivity, but also at the genetic and epigenetic level, changes that could persist indefinitely.

The sensitization to motor hyperactivity and euphoria that occur with cocaine use can progress to paranoia and panic attacks and eventually even seizures (through a process known as kindling).

The dopaminylation of histones in the VTA could lead to persistent increases in drug craving and addiction that may not be easily overcome. Thus, the appealing short-term effects of cocaine can spiral into increasingly adverse behaviors and drug-seeking can become all consuming. While these adversities do not emerge for everyone, the best way to ensure that they do not is to avoid cocaine from the start.

Manic episodes that include a feeling of invincibility, increased social contacts, and what the DSM-5 describes as “excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences” are a time that many are at risk for acquiring a substance problem. For the adolescent who has had a manic episode, ongoing counseling about avoiding developing this type of additional long-term, difficult-to-treatment psychiatric illness could be lifesaving. Describing the epigenetic consequences of substance use may or may not be helpful, but may be worth a try.