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How childhood stress influences gene activity and increases the risk of mental illness

How childhood stress influences gene activity and increases the risk of mental illness
FKBP5 DNAm is associated with anxiety-related vmPFC gray matter volume. a T-map showing gray matter volume associated with FKBP5 DNAm (cg00130530 and cg20813374) thresholded at P<0.01, uncorrected, for presentation purposes (Peak-voxel at x=6, y=62, z=-15 in MNI-space; T=3.99, PFWE=0.039 family-wise error corrected in ROI). B Scatterplot showing the association between residualized FKBP5 DNAm and peak-voxel vmPFC gray matter volume. Statistical analysis details are the same as for part a. c Scatterplot showing the association between residualized vmPFC gray matter volume and STAI-T sum scores (T=-2.82, P=0.005). Credit: Biological Psychiatry (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2024.03.003

Many psychiatric illnesses are related to stress. Negative experiences in childhood can often affect how we deal with stress later in life. But what biological processes are involved? A study recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, conducted by researchers at the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH) in Mannheim, sheds more light on this.

"A deeper understanding of these biological processes holds considerable potential for improving the early detection of psychiatric illnesses and their prevention," says Prof. Dr. Heike Tost, head of the Systems Neuroscience in Psychiatry (SNiP) working group at the CIMH in Mannheim.

DNA methylation of the FKBP5 gene determined

The researchers at the CIMH investigated the effects of the FKBP5 gene on the behavior and of 395 healthy test subjects. Blood samples were taken, imaging (MRI) scans were taken, and the participants answered questions about their thoughts and feelings on a study smartphone (Ecological Momentary Assessment) over a period of seven days.

"In the , we first determined the DNA methylation of the FKBP5 gene. FKBP5 plays an important role in the molecular regulation of stress and is linked to the development of stress-related illnesses such as depression or ," explains Thomas L. Kremer, research associate in the SNiP working group and lead author of the study. DNA methylation is a regulatory process that controls the activity of genes.

It is not a genetic mutation but a modification of the genetic material that can be altered by environmental influences and affects its translation into proteins.

Brain volume changes in the prefrontal cortex

"Our key findings show that altered methylation of FKBP5 at the neurobiological level is associated with brain volume changes in the ," says Kremer. The study also found that the functional change in the prefrontal cortex is linked to a structure deeper in the brain, the amygdala, and that people who had the less regulatory influence of the prefrontal cortex on the amygdala reacted more strongly to everyday stress.

"These findings are an important step towards understanding the biological basis of stress processing and psychiatric disorders," says Dr. Urs Braun, head of the Complex Systems in Psychiatry research group at the CIMH. "The long-term goal is to use this neurobiological understanding to develop innovative approaches for the personalized treatment of psychiatric patients."

More information: Thomas L. Kremer et al, Multimodal Associations of FKBP5 Methylation with Emotion-Regulatory Brain Circuits, Biological Psychiatry (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2024.03.003

Journal information: Biological Psychiatry
Provided by Zentralinstitut für Seelische Gesundheit
Citation: How childhood stress influences gene activity and increases the risk of mental illness (2024, April 9) retrieved 22 May 2024 from
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