Genome-wide DNA methylation differences in nucleus accumbens of smokers vs. nonsmokers

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2021 Feb;46(3):554-560. doi: 10.1038/s41386-020-0782-0. Epub 2020 Jul 30.


Numerous DNA methylation (DNAm) biomarkers of cigarette smoking have been identified in peripheral blood studies, but because of tissue specificity, blood-based studies may not detect brain-specific smoking-related DNAm differences that may provide greater insight as neurobiological indicators of smoking and its exposure effects. We report the first epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) of smoking in human postmortem brain, focusing on nucleus accumbens (NAc) as a key brain region in developing and reinforcing addiction. Illumina HumanMethylation EPIC array data from 221 decedents (120 European American [23% current smokers], 101 African American [26% current smokers]) were analyzed. DNAm by smoking (current vs. nonsmoking) was tested within each ancestry group using robust linear regression models adjusted for age, sex, cell-type proportion, DNAm-derived negative control principal components (PCs), and genotype-derived PCs. The resulting ancestry-specific results were combined via meta-analysis. We extended our NAc findings, using published smoking EWAS results in blood, to identify DNAm smoking effects that are unique (tissue-specific) vs. shared between tissues (tissue-shared). We identified seven CpGs (false discovery rate < 0.05), of which three CpGs are located near genes previously indicated with blood-based smoking DNAm biomarkers: ZIC1, ZCCHC24, and PRKDC. The other four CpGs are novel for smoking-related DNAm changes: ABLIM3, APCDD1L, MTMR6, and CTCF. None of the seven smoking-related CpGs in NAc are driven by genetic variants that share association signals with predisposing genetic risk variants for smoking, suggesting that the DNAm changes reflect consequences of smoking. Our results provide the first evidence for smoking-related DNAm changes in human NAc, highlighting CpGs that were undetected as peripheral biomarkers and may reflect brain-specific responses to smoking exposure.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Non-Smokers
  • Nucleus Accumbens
  • Smokers
  • Smoking / genetics