Few events are as hard to understand as the loss of a loved one to suicide – a fatal confluence of factors that are oft scrutinized – but whose analysis can provide little comfort to family and friends. To me, one frightening and vexing aspect of what is known about the biological roots of depression, anxiety, impulsivity and other mental traits and states associated with suicide, is the way in which early life (even prenatal) experience can influence events in later life. As covered in this blog here and here, there appear to be very early interactions between emotional experience in early life and the methylation of specific points in the genome. Such methylation – often referred to as epigenetic marks – can regulate the expression of genes that are important for synaptic plasticity and cognitive development.
The recent paper, “Alternative Splicing, Methylation State, and Expression Profile of Tropomyosin-Related Kinase B in the Frontal Cortex of Suicide Completers” is a recent example of a link between epigenetic marks and suicide. The team of Ernst et al., examined gene expression profiles from the frontal cortex and cerebellum of 28 males lost to suicide and 11 control, ethnically-matched control participants. Using a subject-by-subject comparison method described as “extreme value analysis” the team identified 2 Affymetrix probes: 221794_at and 221796_at – that are specific to NTRK2 (TRKB) gene – that showed significantly lower expression in several areas of the frontal cortex. The team also found that these probes were specific to exon 16 – which is expressed only in the TRKB.T1 isoform that is expressed only in astrocytes.
Further analysis showed that there were no genetic differences in the promoter region of this gene that would explain the expression differences, but, however, that there were 2 methylation sites (epigenetic differences) whose methylation status correlated with expression levels (P=0.01 and 0.004). As a control, the DNA-methylation at these sites was not correlated with TRKB.T1 expression when DNA and RNA was taken from the cerebellum (a control since the cerebellum is not thought to be directly involved in the regulation of mood).
In the case of TRKB.T1 expression, the team reports that more methylation at these 2 sites in the promoter region is associated with less TRKB.T1 expression in the frontal cortex. Where and when are these marks laid down? Are they reversible? How can we know or suspect what is happening to our epigenome (you can’t measure this by spitting into a cup as with current genome sequencing methods)? To me, the team has identified an important clue from which such follow-up questions can be addressed. Now that they have a biomarker, they can help us begin to better understand our complex and often difficult emotional lives within a broader biological context.