Childhood abuse alters hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function and increases the risk of suicide. Hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor (GR) activation regulates HPA activity, and human GR expression (hGR) is reduced in the hippocampus of suicide completers with a history of childhood abuse compared with controls. The abuse-related decrease in hGR expression associates with increased DNA methylation of the promoter of the hGR(1F) variant in the hippocampus.
In this study, we investigated the expression and methylation levels of other hGR splice variants in the hippocampus and anterior cingulate gyrus in suicide completers with and without a history of childhood abuse and in controls. Expression levels were quantified using quantitative reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction and promoter methylation was assessed by pyrosequencing.
In the hippocampus, the expression of total hGR and variants 1(B), 1(C), and 1(H) was decreased in suicide completers with histories of abuse compared with suicides with no histories of abuse and with control subjects. In the anterior cingulate gyrus, however, no group differences in hGR total or variant expression were found. Site-specific methylation in hGR1(B) and 1(C) promoter sequences were negatively correlated with total hGR messenger RNA, as well as with hGR1(B) and 1(C) expression. Luciferase assay showed that methylation in hGR promoter decreases transcriptional activity. In contrast, total and site-specific methylation in the hGR1(H) promoter was positively correlated with total hGR messenger RNA and hGR1(H) expression.
These findings suggest that early-life events alter the expression of several hGR variants in the hippocampus of suicide completers through effects on promoter DNA methylation.