Background and aims: Withdrawal is a serious and sometimes life-threatening event in alcohol-dependent individuals. It has been suggested that epigenetic processes may play a role in this context. This study aimed to identify genes and pathways involved in such processes which hint to relevant mechanisms underlying withdrawal.
Design: Cross-sectional case-control study and longitudinal within-cases study during alcohol withdrawal and after 2 weeks of recovery SETTING: Addiction medicine departments in two university hospitals in southern Germany.
Participants/cases: Ninety-nine alcohol-dependent male patients receiving in-patient treatment and suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms during detoxification and 95 age-matched male controls.
Measurements: Epigenome-wide methylation patterns were analyzed in patients during acute alcohol withdrawal and after 2 weeks of recovery, as well as in age-matched controls using Illumina EPIC bead chips. Methylation levels of patients and controls were tested for association with withdrawal status. Tests were adjusted for technical and batch effects, age, smoking and cell type distribution. Single-site analysis, as well as an analysis of differentially methylated regions and gene ontology analysis, were performed.
Findings: We found pronounced epigenome-wide significant [false discovery rate (FDR) < 0.05] differences between patients during withdrawal and after 2 weeks [2876 cytosine-phosphate-guanine (CpG) sites], as well as between patients and controls (9845 and 6094 CpG sites comparing patients at time-point 1 and patients at time-point 2 versus controls, respectively). Analysis of differentially methylated regions and involved pathways revealed an over-representation of gene ontology terms related to the immune system response. Differences between patients and controls diminished after recovery (> 800 CpG sites less), suggesting a partial reversibility of alcohol- and withdrawal-related methylation.
Conclusions: Acute alcohol withdrawal in severely dependent male patients appears to be associated with extensive changes in epigenome-wide methylation patterns. In particular, genes involved in immune system response seem to be affected by this condition.
Keywords: Alcohol; DNA methylation; epigenetics; longitudinal study; substance use disorder; withdrawal.
© 2020 The Authors. Addiction published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Society for the Study of Addiction.