Methylation of BDNF in women with bulimic eating syndromes: associations with childhood abuse and borderline personality disorder

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Oct 3;54:43-9. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2014.04.010. Epub 2014 May 5.


DNA methylation allows for the environmental regulation of gene expression and is believed to link environmental stressors to such mental-illness phenotypes as eating disorders. Numerous studies have shown an association between bulimia nervosa (BN) and variations in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF has also been linked to borderline personality disorder (BPD) and to such traits as reward dependence. We examined the extent to which BDNF methylation corresponded to bulimic or normal-eater status, and also to the presence of comorbid borderline personality disorder (BPD) and childhood abuse. Our sample consisted of 64 women with BN and 32 normal-eater (NE) control women. Participants were assessed for eating-disorder symptoms, comorbid psychopathology, and childhood trauma, and then they were required to provide blood samples for methylation analyses. We observed a significant site×group (BN vs. NE) interaction indicating that women with BN showed increases in methylation at specific regions of the BDNF promoter. Furthermore, examining effects of childhood abuse and BPD, we observed significant site×group interactions such that groups composed of individuals with childhood abuse or BPD had particularly high levels of methylation at selected CpG sites. Our findings suggest that BN, especially when co-occurring with childhood abuse or BPD, is associated with a propensity towards elevated methylation at specific BDNF promoter region sites. These findings imply that hypermethylation of the BDNF gene may be related to eating disorder status, developmental stress exposure, and comorbid psychopathology.

Keywords: Abuse; BDNF; Borderline personality disorder; Bulimia nervosa; Epigenetics; Methylation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / blood
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / epidemiology
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / genetics*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics*
  • Bulimia Nervosa / blood
  • Bulimia Nervosa / epidemiology
  • Bulimia Nervosa / genetics*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Comorbidity
  • CpG Islands
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • BDNF protein, human