Epigenetic mechanisms underlying the role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in depression and response to antidepressants

J Exp Biol. 2015 Jan 1;218(Pt 1):21-31. doi: 10.1242/jeb.107086.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a devastating neuropsychiatric disorder encompassing a wide range of cognitive and emotional dysfunctions. The prevalence of MDD is expected to continue its growth to become the second leading cause of disease burden (after HIV) by 2030. Despite an extensive research effort, the exact etiology of MDD remains elusive and the diagnostics uncertain. Moreover, a marked inter-individual variability is observed in the vulnerability to develop depression, as well as in response to antidepressant treatment, for nearly 50% of patients. Although a genetic component accounts for some cases of MDD, it is now clearly established that MDD results from strong gene and environment interactions. Such interactions could be mediated by epigenetic mechanisms, defined as chromatin and DNA modifications that alter gene expression without changing the DNA structure itself. Some epigenetic mechanisms have recently emerged as particularly relevant molecular substrates, promoting vulnerability or resilience to the development of depressive-like symptoms. Although the role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the pathophysiology of MDD remains unclear, its modulation of the efficacy of antidepressants is clearly established. Therefore, in this review, we focus on the epigenetic mechanisms regulating the expression of BDNF in humans and in animal models of depression, and discuss their role in individual differences in vulnerability to depression and response to antidepressant drugs.

Keywords: BDNF; Epigenetics; Individual differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics*
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / genetics*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Epigenesis, Genetic* / drug effects
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor