DNA methylation ofOXTRis associated with parasympathetic nervous system activity and amygdala morphology


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Abstract

Oxytocin has anxiolytic properties whose mechanisms of action are still being identified. DNA methylation in the promoter region of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR), an epigenetic modification that putatively reflects a downtuning of the oxytocin system, has previously been implicated in the regulation of fear-related responses through the amygdala. In this study, we attempted to characterize the relationship between methylation of OXTR and anxiogenesis using two distinct endophenotypes: autonomic nervous system activity and subcortical brain structure. In 79 participants, we found that increased OXTR methylation is associated with attenuated resting parasympathetic tone, measured using high-frequency heart rate variability. Further, we found that this relationship is mediated by brain morphology, such that OXTR methylation is associated with increased gray matter of the central amygdala which is, in turn, associated with decreased parasympathetic tone. These results further our understanding of epigenetic regulation of the human oxytocin system and its role in anxiogenesis.

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