PROVIDENCE, R.I. In a look at how major stressors during childhood can change a person's biological risk for psychiatric disorders, researchers at Butler Hospital have discovered a genetic alteration at the root of the association. The research, published online in PLoS ONE on January 25, 2012, suggests that childhood adversity may lead to epigenetic changes in the human glucocorticoid receptor gene, an important regulator of the biological stress response that may increase risk for psychiatric disorders.
The association between childhood adversity, including parental loss and childhood maltreatment, and risk for psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety has been established in multiple studies. However, researchers have yet to define how and why this association exists in humans. "We need to understand the biology of this effect in order to develop better treatment and prevention programs," said Audrey Tyrka, MD, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Clinical and Translational Neuroscience at Butler Hospital and associate professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University. "Our research group turned to the field of epigenetics to determine how environmental conditions in childhood can influence the biological stress response."
Epigenetics is the study of changes to the genome that do not alter the DNA sequence, but influence whether genes will be expressed, or "turned on," versus whether they will be silenced. Knowing that the connection between childhood maltreatment and psychiatric disorders has been linked to the hormone system that coordinates biological stress responses, the researchers sought to identify the root cause at a genetic level.
The glucocorticoid receptor is an important regulator of the stress response, and methylation is a particularly stable type of epigenetic modification. "We knew that epigenetic changes to this gene could be affected by childhood parenting experiences because previo
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