Bridging the link between trauma, brain development and depression: epigenetic mechanisms
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Despite its large impact on the individual and society, we currently have only a rudimentary understanding of the biological basis of Major Depressive Disorder, even less so in adolescent populations. This thesis focuses on two research questions. First, how do adolescents with depression differ from adolescents who have never been depressed on (1a) brain morphology and (1b) DNA methylation? We studied differences in the fronto-limbic system (a collection of areas responsible for emotion regulation) and methylation at the serotonin transporter (SLC6A4) and FK506 binding protein gene (FKBP5) genes (two genes strongly linked to stress regulation and depression). Second, how does childhood trauma, which is known to increase risk for depression, affect (2a) brain development and (2b) SLC6A4 and FKBP5 methylation? Further, (2c) how might DNA methylation explain how trauma affects brain development in depression? We studied these questions in 24 adolescent depressed patients and 21 controls. We found that (1a) depressed adolescents had decreased left precuneus volume and greater volume of the left precentral gyrus compared to controls; however, no differences in fronto-limbic morphology were identified. Moreover, (1b) individuals with depression had lower levels of FKBP5 methylation than controls. In line with our second hypothesis (2a) greater levels of trauma were associated with decreased volume of a number of fronto-limbic regions. Further, we found that (2b) greater trauma was associated with decreased SLC6A4, but not FKBP5, methylation. Finally, (2c) greater FKBP5, but not SLC6A4, methylation was associated with decreased volume of a number of fronto-limbic regions. The results of this study suggest an association among trauma, DNA methylation and brain development in youth, but the direction of these relationships appears to be inconsistent. Future studies using a longitudinal design will be necessary to clarify these results and help us understand how the brain and epigenome change over time in depressed youth.