DNA methylation of BDNF as a biomarker of early-life adversity

Early-life adversity increases the risk for psychopathology in later life. The underlying mechanism(s) is unknown, but epigenetic variation represents a plausible candidate. Early-life exposures can disrupt epigenetic programming in the brain, with lasting consequences for gene expression and behavior. This evidence is primarily derived from animal studies, with limited study in humans due to inaccessibility of the target brain tissue. In humans, although there is evidence for DNA methylation changes in the peripheral blood of psychiatric patients, a fundamental question remains as to whether epigenetic markers in the blood can predict epigenetic changes occurring in the brain. We used in utero bisphenol A (BPA) exposure as a model environmental exposure shown to disrupt neurodevelopment and exert long-term effects on behavior in animals and humans. We show that prenatal BPA induces lasting DNA methylation changes in the transcriptionally relevant region of the Bdnf gene in the hippocampus and blood of BALB/c mice and that these changes are consistent with BDNF changes in the cord blood of humans exposed to high maternal BPA levels in utero. Our data suggest that BDNF DNA methylation in the blood may be used as a predictor of brain BDNF DNA methylation and gene expression as well as behavioral vulnerability induced by early-life environmental exposure. Because BDNF expression and DNA methylation are altered in several psychiatric disorders that are associated with early-life adversity, including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism, BDNF DNA methylation in the blood may represent a novel biomarker for the early detection of psychopathology.

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