Effects of the Social Environment and Stress on Glucocorticoid Receptor Gene Methylation: A Systematic Review

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Jan 15;79(2):87-96. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.11.022. Epub 2014 Dec 13.


The early-life social environment can induce stable changes that influence neurodevelopment and mental health. Research focused on early-life adversity revealed that early-life experiences have a persistent impact on gene expression and behavior through epigenetic mechanisms. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is sensitive to changes in the early-life environment that associate with DNA methylation of a neuron-specific exon 17 promoter of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) (Nr3c1). Since initial findings were published in 2004, numerous reports have investigated GR gene methylation in relationship to early-life experience, parental stress, and psychopathology. We conducted a systematic review of this growing literature, which identified 40 articles (13 animal and 27 human studies) published since 2004. The majority of these examined the GR exon variant 1F in humans or the GR17 in rats, and 89% of human studies and 70% of animal studies of early-life adversity reported increased methylation at this exon variant. All the studies investigating exon 1F/17 methylation in conditions of parental stress (one animal study and seven human studies) also reported increased methylation. Studies examining psychosocial stress and psychopathology had less consistent results, with 67% of animal studies reporting increased exon 17 methylation and 17% of human studies reporting increased exon 1F methylation. We found great consistency among studies investigating early-life adversity and the effect of parental stress, even if the precise phenotype and measures of social environment adversity varied among studies. These results are encouraging and warrant further investigation to better understand correlates and characteristics of these associations.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Early-life adversity; Epigenetics; Glucocorticoid receptor; Social environment; Systematic review.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Exons
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / genetics*
  • Social Environment*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • NR3C1 protein, human
  • NR3C1 protein, rat
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid