Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Behav. Neurosci., 10 April 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00030

Differential genetic and epigenetic regulation of catechol-O-methyltransferase is associated with impaired fear inhibition in posttraumatic stress disorder

  • 1Mental Health Service Line, Atlanta VA Medical Center, Decatur, GA, USA
  • 2Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • 3Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany
  • 4Department of Human Genetics, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • 5Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, MD, USA

The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) enzyme is critical for the catabolic regulation of synaptic dopamine, resulting in altered cortical functioning. The COMT Val158Met polymorphism has been implicated in human mental illness, with Met/Met homozygotes associated with increased susceptibility to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our primary objective was to examine the intermediate phenotype of fear inhibition in PTSD stratified by COMT genotype (Met/Met, Val/Met, and Val/Val) and differential gene regulation via methylation status at CpG sites in the COMT promoter region. More specifically, we examined the potential interaction of COMT genotype and PTSD diagnosis on fear-potentiated startle during fear conditioning and extinction and COMT DNA methylation levels (as determined using genomic DNA isolated from whole blood). Participants were recruited from medical and gynecological clinics of an urban hospital in Atlanta, GA, USA. We found that individuals with the Met/Met genotype demonstrated higher fear-potentiated startle to the CS− (safety signal) and during extinction of the CS+ (danger signal) compared to Val/Met and Val/Val genotypes. The PTSD+ Met/Met genotype group had the greatest impairment in fear inhibition to the CS− (p = 0.006), compared to Val carriers. In addition, the Met/Met genotype was associated with DNA methylation at four CpG sites, two of which were associated with impaired fear inhibition to the safety signal. These results suggest that multiple differential mechanisms for regulating COMT function – at the level of protein structure via the Val158Met genotype and at the level of gene regulation via differential methylation – are associated with impaired fear inhibition in PTSD.

Keywords: catechol-O-methyltransferase, fear-potentiated startle, posttraumatic stress disorder, epigenetic, methylation, trauma

Citation: Norrholm SD, Jovanovic T, Smith AK, Binder E, Klengel T, Conneely K, Mercer KB, Davis JS, Kerley K, Winkler J, Gillespie CF, Bradley B and Ressler KJ (2013) Differential genetic and epigenetic regulation of catechol-O-methyltransferase is associated with impaired fear inhibition in posttraumatic stress disorder. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 7:30. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00030

Received: 05 February 2013; Accepted: 27 March 2013;
Published online: 10 April 2013.

Edited by:

Martine Ammassari-Teule, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy

Reviewed by:

Inga D. Neumann, University of Regensburg, Germany
Christina Dalla, University of Athens, Greece

Copyright: © 2013 Norrholm, Jovanovic, Smith, Binder, Klengel, Conneely, Mercer, Davis, Kerley, Winkler, Gillespie, Bradley and Ressler. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Seth Davin Norrholm, Mental Health Service Line, Atlanta VA Medical Center, 1670 Clairmont Road, MHSL 116A, Decatur, GA 30033, USA. e-mail: seth.norrholm@va.gov

Seth Davin Norrholm and Tanja Jovanovic have contributed equally to this work.

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