The genetic underpinnings of mental health disorders are highly complex, involving multifaceted interactions between risk genes, the environment, and experiential factors. It is well known that adverse early life events confer significantly greater susceptibility to psychiatric conditions in later life. However, the epigenetic mechanisms by which environmental factors interact with genetic programs in the nervous system remain poorly understood. This is partially due to the complex heterogeneity of neuronal cell types and the limitations of existing techniques. Here we propose to investigate the epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation and chromatin organization induced by early-life stress with conceptually and technically innovative approaches. We plan to map the stress-induced DNA methylation changes by directly sequencing the methylated DNA and by directly examining the dynamic association of methyl- CpG binding proteins (MBPs) with methylated DNA. To achieve this, we will generate two transgenic mouse lines: one line expresses biotin ligase (BirA) and GFP in a spatially and temporally controlled manner;while the other line carries an endogenous MBP tagged with a biotinylation signal sequence. In the resulting progeny of these two mouse lines, MBP will be specifically biotinylated in a defined population of GFP-positive neurons. Following experimental treatment of these transgenic mice, the genome-wide DNA methylation loci in specific neuronal populations will be mapped by high throughput sequencing MeDIP-seq and bioMBP-ChIP-seq. In addition, the chromatin complexes associated with each MBP will be characterized by systematic mass spectrometry bioMBP-ChIP-MS/MS to investigate the molecular mechanisms underlying epigenetic modifications. With the combined genomic and proteomic approaches, we hope to gain an insight into the epigenetic mechanisms through which early-life stress interacts with susceptibility genes and confers risks to mental illness. Our proposed study will also allow greater understanding of the underlying causes of mental health disorders and provide the necessary foundation for improved diagnosis and interventions.

Public Health Relevance

The goal of this proposal is to develop an innovative strategy to investigate the epigenetic mechanisms by which environmental factors such as early life stress interact with genetics, and how these interactions increase the risk of mental illness. We plan to generate novel genetically modified mouse lines to tag methyl-CpG binding proteins specifically in a defined population of neurons. We will then investigate the epigenetic changes associated with environmental cues in the brain with both genomic and proteomic approaches. The proposed studies will be of significance not only in understanding the epigenetic control of experience-dependent brain development, but also in understanding the molecular and cellular basis of mental disorders. It is tempting to argue that our research may identify potential molecular, cellular, and circuit targets to intervene and/or prevent mental illness.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZMH1-ERB-L (04))
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Beckel-Mitchener, Andrea C
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University of Pennsylvania
Schools of Medicine
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