Neurology Central

Can we identify meaningful epigenetic effects on human brain function and related risk for mental illness?

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Research on epigenetic modifiers of human brain function and related risk for mental illness faces the unique and seemingly insurmountable challenge of studying tissue that is simultaneously one of the most functionally complex and least accessible in the human body. Nevertheless, a handful of recent studies have successfully begun to combine epigenetics and in vivo brain imaging techniques, such as functional MRI, to examine associations between peripheral markers of DNA cytosine methylation and clinically relevant brain function [1]. Alongside these promising beginnings, a more long-standing literature has demonstrated that environmental stress, particularly early in life, can alter the epigenetic landscape to increase risk for a variety of disorders, including mental illness [2–4]. Taken together, these parallel lines of work show significant promise for bridging the link from environmental risk to mechanisms of psychopathology and possible therapeutic targets. However, many open questions and limitations have prevented further synergy and more rapid advances. Here we briefly consider these challenges and discuss potential avenues for moving forward through the lens of our ongoing work.
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