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Longitudinal changes in glucocorticoid receptor exon 1F methylation and psychopathology after military deployment.

ABSTRACT

Several cross-sectional studies have demonstrated the relevance of DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor exon 1F region (GR-1F) for trauma-related psychopathology. We conducted a longitudinal study to examine GR-1F methylation changes over time in relation to trauma exposure and the development of post-deployment psychopathology. GR-1F methylation (52 loci) was quantified using pyrosequencing in whole blood of 92 military men 1 month before and 6 months after a 4-month deployment period to Afghanistan. GR-1F methylation overall (mean methylation and the number of methylated loci) and functional methylation (methylation at loci associated with GR exon 1F expression) measures were examined. We first investigated the effect of exposure to potentially traumatic events during deployment on these measures. Subsequently, changes in GR-1F methylation were related to changes in mental health problems (total Symptom Checklist-90 score) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (Self-Report Inventory for PTSD). Trauma exposure during deployment was associated with an increase in all methylation measures, but development of mental health problems 6 months after deployment was only significantly associated with an increased functional methylation. Emergence of post-deployment PTSD symptoms was not related to increased functional methylation over time. Pre-deployment methylation levels did not predict post-deployment psychopathology. To our knowledge, this is the first study to prospectively demonstrate trauma-related increases in GR-1F methylation, and it shows that only increases at specific functionally relevant sites predispose for post-deployment psychopathology.