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Journal: Molecular psychiatry


The hypothesis that the S allele of the 5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter promoter region is associated with increased risk of depression, but only in individuals exposed to stressful situations, has generated much interest, research and controversy since first proposed in 2003. Multiple meta-analyses combining results from heterogeneous analyses have not settled the issue. To determine the magnitude of the interaction and the conditions under which it might be observed, we performed new analyses on 31 data sets containing 38 802 European ancestry subjects genotyped for 5-HTTLPR and assessed for depression and childhood maltreatment or other stressful life events, and meta-analysed the results. Analyses targeted two stressors (narrow, broad) and two depression outcomes (current, lifetime). All groups that published on this topic prior to the initiation of our study and met the assessment and sample size criteria were invited to participate. Additional groups, identified by consortium members or self-identified in response to our protocol (published prior to the start of analysis) with qualifying unpublished data, were also invited to participate. A uniform data analysis script implementing the protocol was executed by each of the consortium members. Our findings do not support the interaction hypothesis. We found no subgroups or variable definitions for which an interaction between stress and 5-HTTLPR genotype was statistically significant. In contrast, our findings for the main effects of life stressors (strong risk factor) and 5-HTTLPR genotype (no impact on risk) are strikingly consistent across our contributing studies, the original study reporting the interaction and subsequent meta-analyses. Our conclusion is that if an interaction exists in which the S allele of 5-HTTLPR increases risk of depression only in stressed individuals, then it is not broadly generalisable, but must be of modest effect size and only observable in limited situations.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 4 April 2017; doi:10.1038/mp.2017.44.

Concepts: Serotonin transporter, Statistical power, Statistical significance, Gene, Meta-analysis, Scientific method, Effect size, 5-HTTLPR


Causes of the well-documented association between low levels of cognitive functioning and many adverse neuropsychiatric outcomes, poorer physical health and earlier death remain unknown. We used linkage disequilibrium regression and polygenic profile scoring to test for shared genetic aetiology between cognitive functions and neuropsychiatric disorders and physical health. Using information provided by many published genome-wide association study consortia, we created polygenic profile scores for 24 vascular-metabolic, neuropsychiatric, physiological-anthropometric and cognitive traits in the participants of UK Biobank, a very large population-based sample (N=112 151). Pleiotropy between cognitive and health traits was quantified by deriving genetic correlations using summary genome-wide association study statistics and to the method of linkage disequilibrium score regression. Substantial and significant genetic correlations were observed between cognitive test scores in the UK Biobank sample and many of the mental and physical health-related traits and disorders assessed here. In addition, highly significant associations were observed between the cognitive test scores in the UK Biobank sample and many polygenic profile scores, including coronary artery disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, major depressive disorder, body mass index, intracranial volume, infant head circumference and childhood cognitive ability. Where disease diagnosis was available for UK Biobank participants, we were able to show that these results were not confounded by those who had the relevant disease. These findings indicate that a substantial level of pleiotropy exists between cognitive abilities and many human mental and physical health disorders and traits and that it can be used to predict phenotypic variance across samples.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 26 January 2016; doi:10.1038/mp.2015.225.

Concepts: Mental disorder, Genome-wide association study, Medicine, Coronary artery disease, Mind, Psychology, Genetics, Cognition


Clinical evidence suggests that mood and behavioral symptoms in premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a common, recently recognized, psychiatric condition among women, reflect abnormal responsivity to ovarian steroids. This differential sensitivity could be due to an unrecognized aspect of hormonal signaling or a difference in cellular response. In this study, lymphoblastoid cell line cultures (LCLs) from women with PMDD and asymptomatic controls were compared via whole-transcriptome sequencing (RNA-seq) during untreated (ovarian steroid-free) conditions and following hormone treatment. The women with PMDD manifested ovarian steroid-triggered behavioral sensitivity during a hormone suppression and addback clinical trial, and controls did not, leading us to hypothesize that women with PMDD might differ in their cellular response to ovarian steroids. In untreated LCLs, our results overall suggest a divergence between mRNA (for example, gene transcription) and protein (for example, RNA translation in proteins) for the same genes. Pathway analysis of the LCL transcriptome revealed, among others, over-expression of ESC/E(Z) complex genes (an ovarian steroid-regulated gene silencing complex) in untreated LCLs from women with PMDD, with more than half of these genes over-expressed as compared with the controls, and with significant effects for MTF2, PHF19 and SIRT1 (P<0.05). RNA and protein expression of the 13 ESC/E(Z) complex genes were individually quantitated. This pattern of increased ESC/E(Z) mRNA expression was confirmed in a larger cohort by qRT-PCR. In contrast, protein expression of ESC/E(Z) genes was decreased in untreated PMDD LCLs with MTF2, PHF19 and SIRT1 all significantly decreased (P<0.05). Finally, mRNA expression of several ESC/E(Z) complex genes were increased by progesterone in controls only, and decreased by estradiol in PMDD LCLs. These findings demonstrate that LCLs from women with PMDD manifest a cellular difference in ESC/E(Z) complex function both in the untreated condition and in response to ovarian hormones. Dysregulation of ESC/E(Z) complex function could contribute to PMDD.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 3 January 2017; doi:10.1038/mp.2016.229.

Concepts: Molecular biology, Messenger RNA, Transcription, Gene, RNA, DNA, Protein, Gene expression


Identifying biological mechanisms through which the experience of adversity emerges as individual risk for mental illness is an important step toward developing strategies for personalized treatment and, ultimately, prevention. Preclinical studies have identified epigenetic modification of gene expression as one such mechanism. Recent clinical studies have suggested that epigenetic modification, particularly methylation of gene regulatory regions, also acts to shape human brain function associated with risk for mental illness. However, it is not yet clear whether differential gene methylation as a function of adversity contributes to the emergence of individual risk for mental illness. Using prospective longitudinal epigenetic, neuroimaging and behavioral data from 132 adolescents, we demonstrate that changes in gene methylation associated with lower socioeconomic status (SES) predict changes in risk-related brain function. Specifically, we find that lower SES during adolescence is associated with an increase in methylation of the proximal promoter of the serotonin transporter gene, which predicts greater increases in threat-related amygdala reactivity. We subsequently demonstrate that greater increases in amygdala reactivity moderate the association between a positive family history for depression and the later manifestation of depressive symptoms. These initial results suggest a specific biological mechanism through which adversity contributes to altered brain function, which in turn moderates the emergence of general liability as individual risk for mental illness. If replicated, this prospective pathway may represent a novel target biomarker for intervention and prevention among high-risk individuals.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 24 May 2016; doi:10.1038/mp.2016.82.

Concepts: Gene, Major depressive disorder, Human brain, DNA methylation, Socioeconomic status, Epigenetics, Gene expression, DNA


The pattern of structural brain alterations associated with major depressive disorder (MDD) remains unresolved. This is in part due to small sample sizes of neuroimaging studies resulting in limited statistical power, disease heterogeneity and the complex interactions between clinical characteristics and brain morphology. To address this, we meta-analyzed three-dimensional brain magnetic resonance imaging data from 1728 MDD patients and 7199 controls from 15 research samples worldwide, to identify subcortical brain volumes that robustly discriminate MDD patients from healthy controls. Relative to controls, patients had significantly lower hippocampal volumes (Cohen’s d=-0.14, % difference=-1.24). This effect was driven by patients with recurrent MDD (Cohen’s d=-0.17, % difference=-1.44), and we detected no differences between first episode patients and controls. Age of onset ⩽21 was associated with a smaller hippocampus (Cohen’s d=-0.20, % difference=-1.85) and a trend toward smaller amygdala (Cohen’s d=-0.11, % difference=-1.23) and larger lateral ventricles (Cohen’s d=0.12, % difference=5.11). Symptom severity at study inclusion was not associated with any regional brain volumes. Sample characteristics such as mean age, proportion of antidepressant users and proportion of remitted patients, and methodological characteristics did not significantly moderate alterations in brain volumes in MDD. Samples with a higher proportion of antipsychotic medication users showed larger caudate volumes in MDD patients compared with controls. This currently largest worldwide effort to identify subcortical brain alterations showed robust smaller hippocampal volumes in MDD patients, moderated by age of onset and first episode versus recurrent episode status.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 30 June 2015; doi:10.1038/mp.2015.69.

Concepts: Magnetic resonance imaging, Cerebral cortex, Bipolar disorder, Major depressive disorder, Sample size, Hippocampus, Brain, Schizophrenia


Epigenetic processes have been implicated in the pathophysiology of alcohol dependence, but the specific molecular mechanisms mediating dependence-induced neuroadaptations remain largely unknown. Here, we found that a history of alcohol dependence persistently decreased the expression of Prdm2, a histone methyltransferase that monomethylates histone 3 at the lysine 9 residue (H3K9me1), in the rat dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). Downregulation of Prdm2 was associated with decreased H3K9me1, supporting that changes in Prdm2 mRNA levels affected its activity. Chromatin immunoprecipitation followed by massively parallel DNA sequencing showed that genes involved in synaptic communication are epigenetically regulated by H3K9me1 in dependent rats. In non-dependent rats, viral-vector-mediated knockdown of Prdm2 in the dmPFC resulted in expression changes similar to those observed following a history of alcohol dependence. Prdm2 knockdown resulted in increased alcohol self-administration, increased aversion-resistant alcohol intake and enhanced stress-induced relapse to alcohol seeking, a phenocopy of postdependent rats. Collectively, these results identify a novel epigenetic mechanism that contributes to the development of alcohol-seeking behavior following a history of dependence.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 30 August 2016; doi:10.1038/mp.2016.131.

Concepts: Rat, Chromosome, Epigenetics, Gene expression, Methylation, Nucleosome, Histone, DNA


Inflammatory cytokines are commonly elevated in acute depression and are associated with resistance to monoaminergic treatment. To examine the potential role of cytokines in the pathogenesis and treatment of depression, we carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of antidepressant activity of anti-cytokine treatment using clinical trials of chronic inflammatory conditions where depressive symptoms were measured as a secondary outcome. Systematic search of the PubMed, EMBASE, PsycINFO and Cochrane databases, search of reference lists and conference abstracts, followed by study selection process yielded 20 clinical trials. Random effect meta-analysis of seven randomised controlled trials (RCTs) involving 2370 participants showed a significant antidepressant effect of anti-cytokine treatment compared with placebo (standardised mean difference (SMD)=0.40, 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.22-0.59). Anti-tumour necrosis factor drugs were most commonly studied (five RCTs); SMD=0.33 (95% CI; 0.06-0.60). Separate meta-analyses of two RCTs of adjunctive treatment with anti-cytokine therapy and eight non-randomised and/or non-placebo studies yielded similar small-to-medium effect estimates favouring anti-cytokine therapy; SMD=0.19 (95% CI, 0.00-0.37) and 0.51 (95% CI, 0.34-0.67), respectively. Adalimumab, etanercept, infliximab and tocilizumab all showed statistically significant improvements in depressive symptoms. Meta-regression exploring predictors of response found that the antidepressant effect was associated with baseline symptom severity (P=0.018) but not with improvement in primary physical illness, sex, age or study duration. The findings indicate a potentially causal role for cytokines in depression and that cytokine modulators may be novel drugs for depression in chronically inflamed subjects. The field now requires RCTs of cytokine modulators using depression as the primary outcome in subjects with high inflammation who are free of other physical illnesses.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 18 October 2016; doi:10.1038/mp.2016.167.

Concepts: Clinical research, Effect size, Inflammation, TGN1412, Statistics, Meta-analysis, Randomized controlled trial, Clinical trial


Previous studies on the neurocognitive impact of cannabis use have found working and declarative memory deficits that tend to normalize with abstinence. An unexplored aspect of cognitive function in chronic cannabis users is the ability to distinguish between veridical and illusory memories, a crucial aspect of reality monitoring that relies on adequate memory function and cognitive control. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that abstinent cannabis users have an increased susceptibility to false memories, failing to identify lure stimuli as events that never occurred. In addition to impaired performance, cannabis users display reduced activation in areas associated with memory processing within the lateral and medial temporal lobe (MTL), and in parietal and frontal brain regions involved in attention and performance monitoring. Furthermore, cannabis consumption was inversely correlated with MTL activity, suggesting that the drug is especially detrimental to the episodic aspects of memory. These findings indicate that cannabis users have an increased susceptibility to memory distortions even when abstinent and drug-free, suggesting a long-lasting compromise of memory and cognitive control mechanisms involved in reality monitoring.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 31 March 2015; doi:10.1038/mp.2015.36.

Concepts: Declarative memory, Brain, Temporal lobe, Psychology, Cognition, Magnetic resonance imaging, Memory, Hippocampus


A growing body of research demonstrates that individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) are characterized by shortened telomere length, which has been posited to underlie the association between depression and increased instances of medical illness. The temporal nature of the relation between MDD and shortened telomere length, however, is not clear. Importantly, both MDD and telomere length have been associated independently with high levels of stress, implicating dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and anomalous levels of cortisol secretion in this relation. Despite these associations, no study has assessed telomere length or its relation with HPA-axis activity in individuals at risk for depression, before the onset of disorder. In the present study, we assessed cortisol levels in response to a laboratory stressor and telomere length in 97 healthy young daughters of mothers either with recurrent episodes of depression (i.e., daughters at familial risk for depression) or with no history of psychopathology. We found that daughters of depressed mothers had shorter telomeres than did daughters of never-depressed mothers and, further, that shorter telomeres were associated with greater cortisol reactivity to stress. This study is the first to demonstrate that children at familial risk of developing MDD are characterized by accelerated biological aging, operationalized as shortened telomere length, before they had experienced an onset of depression; this may predispose them to develop not only MDD but also other age-related medical illnesses. It is critical, therefore, that we attempt to identify and distinguish genetic and environmental mechanisms that contribute to telomere shortening.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 30 September 2014; doi:10.1038/mp.2014.119.

Concepts: Depression, Senescence, Telomere, Types of psychological depression, Seasonal affective disorder, Bipolar disorder, Major depressive disorder, Illness


Some studies suggest that prenatal infection increases risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). This study was undertaken in a prospective cohort in Norway to examine whether we could find evidence to support an association of the prenatal occurrence of fever, a common manifestation of infection, with ASD risk. Prospective questionnaires provided maternal exposure data; case status was established from clinical assessments and registry linkages. In a large, prospectively ascertained cohort of pregnant mothers and their offspring, we examined infants born ⩾32 weeks for associations between fever exposure in each trimester and ASD risk using logistic regression. Maternal exposure to second-trimester fever was associated with increased ASD risk, adjusting for presence of fever in other trimesters and confounders (adjusted odds ratio (aOR), 1.40; 95% confidence interval, 1.09-1.79), with a similar, but nonsignificant, point estimate in the first trimester. Risk increased markedly with exposure to three or more fever episodes after 12 weeks' gestation (aOR, 3.12; 1.28-7.63). ASD risk appears to increase with maternal fever, particularly in the second trimester. Risk magnified dose dependently with exposure to multiple fevers after 12 weeks' gestation. Our findings support a role for gestational maternal infection and innate immune responses to infection in the pathogenesis of at least some cases of ASD.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 13 June 2017; doi:10.1038/mp.2017.119.

Concepts: Trimester, Fever, Infant, Autism, Embryo, Innate immune system, Pregnancy, Immune system