Differential expression of glucocorticoid receptor transcripts in major depressive disorder is not epigenetically programmed

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 35, Number 4, p.544-556 (2010)

DOI Name (links to online publication)



ABUSE; Amygdala; AXIS; Brain; CHILDHOOD; childhood abuse; Depression; Depressive Disorder; DISORDER; Exons; EXPRESSION; Feedback; FOREBRAIN; glucocorticoid; GLUCOCORTICOID RECEPTOR; GLUCOCORTICOID-RECEPTOR; GR; Hippocampus; HPA; HPA axis; HPA-axis; immuno


Hyperactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is one of the most consistent findings in major depressive disorder (MDD). Impaired HPA feedback may be due to the lower glucocorticoid receptor (GR) or mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) levels in the forebrain. GR levels are transcriptionally controlled by multiple untranslated alternative first exons, each with its own promoter providing a mechanism for tissue-specific fine-tuning of GR levels. Recently epigenetic methylation of these GR promoters was shown to modulate hippocampal GR levels. Here we investigate in post-mortem brain tissues whether in MDD HPA axis hyperactivity may be due to epigenetic modulation of GR transcript variants. Levels of GRalpha, GRbeta and GR-P transcripts were homogeneous throughout the limbic system, with GRalpha being the most abundant (83%), followed by GR-P (5-6%) while GRbeta was barely detectable (0.02%). Among the alternative first exons, 1B and 1C were the most active, while 1E and 1J showed the lowest expression and transcript 1F expressed intermediate levels of about 1%. In MDD, total GR levels were unaltered, although GRalpha was decreased in the amygdala and cingulate gyrus (p<0.05); transcripts containing exons 1B, 1C and 1F were lower, and 1D and1J were increased in some regions. NGFI-A, a transcription factor of exon 1F was down-regulated in the hippocampus of MDD patients; concomitantly exon 1F expression was reduced. Bisulphite sequencing of the alternative promoters showed low methylation levels in both MDD and control brains. Promoter 1F was uniformly unmethylated, suggesting that reduced 1F transcript levels are not linked to promoter methylation but to the observed dearth of NGFI-A. Previous studies showed high methylation levels in the 1F promoter, associated with childhood abuse. Provided our donors were not abused, our results suggest that the pathomechanism of MDD is similar but nevertheless distinct from that of abuse victims, explaining the clinical similarity of both conditions and that susceptibility to depression may be either predisposed by early trauma or developed independent of such a condition. However, this should be further confirmed in dedicated studies in larger cohorts