Fine-tuning of neuronal connections during development is regulated through environmental interactions. Some fine-tuning occurs through changes in gene expression and/or epigenetic gene-specific DNA methylation states. DNA methylation occurs by transfer of a methyl group from S-adenosyl methionine to cytosine residues in the dinucleotide sequence CpG. Although CpG sequences spread throughout the genome are usually heavily methylated, those occurring in CpG islands in the promoter regions of genes are less methylated. In most cases, the extent of DNA methylation correlates with the extent of gene inactivation. Other known epigenetic mechanisms include histone deacetylation and chromatin remodeling, RNA inhibition, RNA modification, and DNA rearrangement. Exposure memory expressed as epigenetic DNA modifications allows genomic plasticity and short-term adaptation of each generation to their environment. Environmental factors that affect DNA methylation include diet, proteins, drugs, and hormones. Induced methylation changes may produce altered gene response upon subsequent hormonal stimulation. The gene-specific DNA methylation state may be preserved upon transmission through mitosis and meiosis. An increasing amount of data implicates a role for DNA methylation in multi-factorial psychiatric disorders. For example, L-methionine treatment can exacerbate psychosis; while valproate, a drug producing hypomethylated DNA, reduces such symptoms. Hypermethylation of the promoter region of the RELN gene correlates with reduced gene expression. This gene's protein Reelin, which is necessary for neuronal migration and synaptogenesis, is reduced in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggesting hypermethylation of the promoter region in these disorders. Some evidence implicates methylation of the promoter regions of the DRD2 and HTR2A genes in schizophrenia and mood disorders as well. DNA methylation usually increases with age, although hypomethylation of the promoter region of the amyloid A4 precursor gene during aging may play a role in Alzheimer's disease. More studies are needed to define the role of methylomics and other epigenetic phenomena in the nervous system.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.