Aging, Environment, & DiseaseDNA Methylation and Hydroxymethylation

Oxytocin Receptor Methylation Associates with Sensitivity to Social Environment

shutterstock_295950872A recent study conducted by researchers at Emory University found that individuals with specific oxytocin receptor methylation patterns – which can help regulate how much oxytocin receptor is made – experience increased symptoms of depression and anxiety when exposed to abuse during childhood.  Oxytocin is a neurohormone vital for social behaviors such as bonding and social development.

Abuse during childhood increases the risk for adult depression and anxiety.  Genetic differences may help distinguish which individuals go on to develop depression and anxiety. Considering oxytocin’s role in social behaviors, oxytocin is thought to influence an individual’s perception of and sensitivity to the social environment, both nurturing and stressful.  This sensitivity may influence the impact of the social environment, whereas someone with “higher sensitivity” may be less resilient to abuse and more likely to develop psychiatric symptoms as an adult.  In addition to variation in the sequence of the gene, DNA methylation regulates the way the oxytocin receptor is expressed.  Unlike DNA sequences, which stay the same throughout life, DNA methylation has the potential to change in response to the environment, allowing gene regulation to be more flexible.

This study evaluated whether oxytocin receptor regulation (sequence and methylation differences) could help distinguish who is more likely to experience adult psychiatric symptoms after childhood abuse. Approximately half of the cohort was exposed to moderate or severe physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.  After controlling for several factors, the researchers found a possible role of oxytocin receptor methylation in the link between abuse during childhood and adult psychiatric symptoms – while abuse was associated with higher psychiatric symptoms overall, individuals with certain patterns of methylation within the oxytocin receptor gene reported the highest depression and anxiety symptoms when exposed to abuse, compared to individuals without those patterns.

This suggests that differences in methylation of this gene may help to partly explain who is more likely to develop depression and anxiety following abuse, potentially due to increased sensitivity to these abusive environments.  Understanding the interplay between stressful social environments and regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene, and whether this regulation may influence psychiatric risk, will help to identify mechanisms underlying the development of psychiatric symptoms and help us better understand risk and resilience following exposure to childhood abuse.


Original Article:
Smearman EL, Almli LM, Conneely KN, Brody GH, Sales JM, Bradley B, Ressler KJ, & Smith AK (2016). Oxytocin Receptor Genetic and Epigenetic Variations: Association With Child Abuse and Adult Psychiatric Symptoms. Child development, 87 (1), 122-34 PMID: 26822448

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Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

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    1. The researchers zeroed in on childhood abuse although there were more relevant factors for an individual’s experience-dependent oxytocin receptor gene DNA methylation.
    2. Although an individual will never be able to give truthful answers to questionnaires of what happened during their earliest life when the majority of epigenetic changes to the oxytocin receptor gene likely took place, the researchers used these answers as important determinants of the study. If links existed between the subjects’ early-life DNA methylation and later-life conditions, they weren’t evidenced by questionnaires that couldn’t report relevant early-life experiences that may have caused DNA methylation.
    3. The researchers didn’t attempt to make their findings comparable with cited studies.
    4. The researchers tortured numbers until they confessed “that CpG methylation may interact with abuse to predict psychiatric symptoms” although the study provided no direct evidence that each subject’s blood oxytocin gene receptor DNA methylation interacted as such.