Epigenetic regulation of the kappa opioid receptor gene by an insertion-deletion in the promoter region

Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2018 Feb;28(2):334-340. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2017.12.013. Epub 2018 Jan 12.


Preclinical and clinical studies have demonstrated that the kappa opioid receptor (KOR) regulates reward, hedonic tone and emotions. At therapeutic level, on-going clinical trials are assessing the potential of targeting the KOR for the management of depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders. However, genetic polymorphisms in the KOR gene that potentially contribute to its implication in these phenotypes have been poorly studied. Here we investigated an insertion-deletion in the promoter region of KOR (rs35566036), recently associated with alcohol addiction, in a cohort of depressed subjects who died by suicide, as well as psychiatrically healthy individuals. Focusing on 3 brain regions (anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and mediodorsal thalamus), we characterized the functional impact of this structural variant on the expression and patterns of DNA methylation of the KOR gene, using qPCR and targeted Bisulfite-Sequencing, respectively. While there was no significant change in the expression of KOR as a function of the insertion-deletion, or as a function of disease status in any brain region, we found that this variant strongly determines DNA methylation in KOR promoter, leading to a significant decrease in methylation levels of 8 nearby CpG dinucleotides located approximately 500 base pairs upstream the transcription start site. In addition, our results suggest a possible association between the insertion-deletion and depression; however, this result should be tested in larger populations. In sum, in this study we uncovered an epigenetic mechanism potentially contributing to KOR dysfunction in carriers of the insertion-deletion.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Depression; Gene expression; Genotype; Insertion–deletion; Kappa opioid receptor.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • CpG Islands
  • Depressive Disorder / genetics
  • Depressive Disorder / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder / pathology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • INDEL Mutation*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic*
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / genetics*
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / metabolism
  • Suicide
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Thalamus / pathology


  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa