Epigenetic Changes Link Environmental Deprivation to Depression

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Johnna Swartz, PhD
Postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Ahmad Hariri
Duke postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Ahmad Hariri

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Swartz: Prior research has shown that low socioeconomic status is a risk factor for the development of depression. In this study, we examined whether this risk factor was associated with changes in an epigenetic tag near the gene coding for the serotonin transporter, which has previously been linked to depression. We found that adolescents growing up in families with lower socioeconomic status accumulated more of these tags over time, which may lead to decreased gene expression. Moreover, we found that more of these tags were associated with increased activity in the amygdala, a brain region that plays an important role in the stress response.

Finally, we found that adolescents with increased activity in the amygdala were more likely to develop depression symptoms a year later, particularly if they had a close relative with a history of depression. This is some of the first research to draw a link from an environmental risk factor to changes in depression symptoms through changes in epigenetic markers and brain function.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Dr. Swartz: Overall, we found evidence that environmental risk factors, such as low socioeconomic status, may place individuals at risk for depression by altering the way that genes are expressed and the way the brain functions. One important takeaway from this is that our biology is not set in stone from an early age, and we continue to see changes through adolescence. This opens the possibility that we could see beneficial changes given positive environmental contexts as well.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Swartz: Future research is needed to replicate these findings and examine the influence of different environmental contexts on changes in these epigenetic and brain markers. Moreover, future research is needed to identify additional epigenetic and brain markers that can help us predict which individuals are at greatest risk for developing depression, and potentially tailor preventions or treatments to individuals based on these markers.

MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.

J R Swartz, A R Hariri, D E Williamson. An epigenetic mechanism links socioeconomic status to changes in depression-related brain function in high-risk adolescents. Molecular Psychiatry, 2016; DOI:10.1038/MP.2016.82

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on May 27, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD