Selected Publications


Genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors controlling oxytocin receptor gene expression

Joshua S Danoff, Kelly L Wroblewski, Andrew J Graves, Graham C Quinn, Allison M Perkeybile, William M Kenkel, Travis S Lillard, Hardik I Parikh, Hudson F Golino, Simon G Gregory, C. Sue Carter, Karen L Bales, Jessica J Connelly. Clinical Epigenetics. 2021 Jan 30.

The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates mammalian social behavior. Disruptions in oxytocin signaling are a feature of many psychopathologies. One commonly studied biomarker for oxytocin involvement in psychiatric diseases is DNA methylation at the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Such studies focus on DNA methylation in two regions of OXTR, exon 3 and a region termed MT2 which overlaps exon 1 and intron 1. However, the relative contribution of exon 3 and MT2 in regulating OXTR gene expression in the brain is currently unknown.
Here, we use the prairie vole as a translational animal model to investigate genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors affecting Oxtr gene expression in a region of the brain that has been shown to drive Oxtr related behavior in the vole, the nucleus accumbens. We show that the genetic structure of Oxtr in prairie voles resembles human OXTR. We then studied the effects of early life experience on DNA methylation in two regions of a CpG island surrounding the Oxtr promoter: MT2 and exon 3. We show that early nurture in the form of parental care results in DNA hypomethylation of Oxtr in both MT2 and exon 3, but only DNA methylation in MT2 is associated with Oxtr gene expression. Network analyses indicate that CpG sites in the 3′ portion of MT2 are most highly associated with Oxtr gene expression. We also identify two novel SNPs in exon 3 of Oxtr in prairie voles and a novel alternative transcript originating from the third intron of the gene. Expression of the novel alternative transcript is associated with genotype at SNP KLW2.
These results identify putative regulatory features of Oxtr in prairie voles which inform future studies examining OXTR in human social behaviors and disorders. These studies indicate that in prairie voles, DNA methylation in MT2, particularly in the 3′ portion, is more predictive of Oxtr gene expression than DNA methylation in exon 3. Similarly, in human temporal cortex, we find that DNA methylation in the 3′ portion of MT2 is associated with OXTR expression. Together, these results suggest that among the CpG sites studied, DNA methylation of MT2 may be the most reliable indicator of OXTR gene expression. We also identify novel features of prairie vole Oxtr, including SNPs and an alternative transcript, which further develop the prairie vole as a translational model for studies of OXTR.

Epigenetic tuning of brain signal entropy in emergent human social behavior

Meghan H Puglia, Kathleen M Krol, Manuela Missana, Cabell L Williams, Travis S Lillard, James P Morris, Jessica J Connelly, Tobias Grossmann. BMC Medicine. 2020 Aug 17.

Background: How the brain develops accurate models of the external world and generates appropriate behavioral responses is a vital question of widespread multidisciplinary interest. It is increasingly understood that brain signal variability-posited to enhance perception, facilitate flexible cognitive representations, and improve behavioral outcomes-plays an important role in neural and cognitive development. The ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to complex and dynamic social information is particularly critical for the development of adaptive learning and behavior. Social perception relies on oxytocin-regulated neural networks that emerge early in development.
Methods: We tested the hypothesis that individual differences in the endogenous oxytocinergic system early in life may influence social behavioral outcomes by regulating variability in brain signaling during social perception. In study 1, 55 infants provided a saliva sample at 5 months of age for analysis of individual differences in the oxytocinergic system and underwent electroencephalography (EEG) while listening to human vocalizations at 8 months of age for the assessment of brain signal variability. Infant behavior was assessed via parental report. In study 2, 60 infants provided a saliva sample and underwent EEG while viewing faces and objects and listening to human speech and water sounds at 4 months of age. Infant behavior was assessed via parental report and eye tracking.
Results: We show in two independent infant samples that increased brain signal entropy during social perception is in part explained by an epigenetic modification to the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and accounts for significant individual differences in social behavior in the first year of life. These results are measure-, context-, and modality-specific: entropy, not standard deviation, links OXTR methylation and infant behavior; entropy evoked during social perception specifically explains social behavior only; and only entropy evoked during social auditory perception predicts infant vocalization behavior.
Conclusions: Demonstrating these associations in infancy is critical for elucidating the neurobiological mechanisms accounting for individual differences in cognition and behavior relevant to neurodevelopmental disorders. Our results suggest that an epigenetic modification to the oxytocin receptor gene and brain signal entropy are useful indicators of social development and may hold potential diagnostic, therapeutic, and prognostic value.

OXTR DNA methylation moderates the developmental calibration of neural reward sensitivity

Marlen Z Gonzalez, Kelly L Wroblewski, Joseph P Allen, James A Coan, Jessica J Connelly. Developmental Psychobiology. 2020 August 17.

The Adaptive Calibration Model of Stress Responsivity (ACM) suggests that developmental experiences predictably tune biological systems to meet the demands of the environment. Particularly important is the calibration of reward systems. Using a longitudinal sample (N = 184) followed since adolescence, this study models the dimensions of early life stress and their effects on epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and individual differences in neural response to reward anticipation. We first created a latent variable model of developmental context using measures collected when participants were 13 years old. As adults, two subsets of participants completed a reward anticipation fMRI paradigm (N = 82) and agreed to have their blood assayed for (OXTR) DNA methylation (N = 112) at two CpG sites. Three latent constructs of developmental context emerged: Neighborhood Harshness, Family Harshness, and Abuse and Disorder. Greater OXTR DNA methylation at CpG sites -924 and -934 blunted the association between greater Neighborhood Harshness and increased neural activation in caudate in anticipation of rewards. Interaction effects were also found outside of reward-related areas for all three latent constructs. Results indicate an epigenetically derived differential susceptibility model whereby high methylation coincides with decreased association between developmental environment and neural reward anticipation.

Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement

Krol KM, Moulder RG, Lillard TS, Grossmann T, Connelly JJ. Science Advances. 2019 October 16.

The contribution of nature versus nurture to the development of human behavior has been debated for centuries. Here, we offer a piece to this complex puzzle by identifying the human endogenous oxytocin system-known for its critical role in mammalian sociality-as a system sensitive to its early environment and subject to epigenetic change. Recent animal work suggests that early parental care is associated with changes in DNA methylation of conserved regulatory sites within the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTRm). Through dyadic modeling of behavior and OXTRm status across the first year and a half of life, we translated these findings to 101 human mother-infant dyads. We show that OXTRm is dynamic in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament. We provide evidence for an early window of environmental epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin system, facilitating the emergence of individual differences in human behavior.

Behavioral and epigenetic consequences of oxytocin treatment at birth

Kenkel WM, Perkeybile AM, Yee JR, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Lillard TS, Ferguson EF, Wroblewski KL, Ferris CF, Carter CS, Connelly JJ. Science Advances. 2019 May 1.

Oxytocin is used in approximately half of all births in the United States during labor induction and/or augmentation. However, the effects of maternal oxytocin administration on offspring development have not been fully characterized. Here, we used the socially monogamous prairie vole to examine the hypothesis that oxytocin exposure at birth can have long-term developmental consequences. Maternally administered oxytocin increased methylation of the oxytocin receptor (Oxtr) in the fetal brain. As adults, oxytocin-exposed voles were more gregarious, with increased alloparental caregiving toward pups and increased close social contact with other adults. Cross-fostering indicated that these effects were the result of direct action on the offspring, rather than indirect effects via postnatal changes in maternal behavior. Male oxytocin-exposed offspring had increased oxytocin receptor density and expression in the brain as adults. These results show that long-term effects of perinatal oxytocin may be mediated by an epigenetic mechanism.

Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with emotion processing in infant brain.

Krol KM, Puglia MH, Morris JP, Connelly JJ, Grossmann T. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 2019 June.

The neural capacity to discriminate between emotions emerges early in development, though little is known about specific factors that contribute to variability in this vital skill during infancy. In adults, DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTRm) is an epigenetic modification that is variable, predictive of gene expression, and has been linked to autism spectrum disorder and the neural response to social cues. It is unknown whether OXTRm is variable in infants, and whether it is predictive of early social function. Implementing a developmental-neuroimaging-epigenetics approach in a large sample of infants (N=98), we examined whether OXTRm is associated withneural responses to emotional expressions. OXTRm was assessed at 5 months of age. At 7 months of age, infants viewed happy, angry, and fearful faces while functional near-infrared spectroscopy was recorded. We observed that OXTRm shows considerable variability among infants. Critically, infants with higher OXTRm show enhanced responses to anger and fear and attenuated responses to happiness in right inferior frontal cortex, a region implicated in emotion processing through action-perception coupling. Findings support models emphasizing oxytocin’s role in modulating neural response to emotion and identify OXTRm as an epigenetic mark contributing to early brain function.

Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor.

Perkeybile AM, Carter CS, Wroblewski KL, Puglia MH, Kenkel WM, Lillard TS, Karaoli T, Gregory SG, Mohammadi N, Epstein L, Bales KL, Connelly JJ. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Aug 31;99:128-136

Mammalian sociality is regulated in part by the neuropeptide oxytocin. In prairie voles, subtle variation in early life experience changes oxytocin receptor-mediated social behaviors. We report that low levels of early care in voles leads to de novo DNA methylation at specific regulatory sites in the oxytocin receptor gene (Oxtr), impacting gene expression and protein distribution in the nucleus accumbens. DNA methylation state of the blood predicts expression in the brain indicating the utility of the blood as a biomarker for the transcription state of the brain. These experience-sensitive CpG sites are conserved in humans, are related to gene expression in the brain, and have been associated with psychiatric disorders and individual differences in neural response to social stimuli. These results identify a mechanism by which early care regulates later displays of typical prairie vole social behavior and suggest the potential for nurture driven epigenetic tuning of OXTR in humans.

Epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor is associated with neural response during selective social attention

Puglia MH, Connelly JJ, Morris JP. Translational Psychiatry. 2018 Jun.

Aberrant attentional biases to social stimuli have been implicated in a number of disorders including autism and social anxiety disorder. Oxytocin, a naturally-occurring mammalian hormone and neuromodulator involved in regulating social behavior, has been proposed to impact basic biological systems that facilitate the detection of and orientation to social information. Here, we investigate a role for naturally-occurring variability in the endogenous oxytocinergic system in regulating neural response during attention to social information. Participants performed a selective social attention task while undergoing fMRI, provided a blood sample for epigenetic analysis, and completed self-report measures of social functioning. We find that a functional epigenetic modification to the oxytocin receptor, OXTR methylation, is associated with increased neural response within and decreased functional coupling between regions of the salience and attentional control networks during selective social attention. We also show that subclinical variability in autistic and social anxiety traits moderates this epigenetic regulation of neural response. These data offer a mechanistic explanation to a growing literature associating social behavior and disorder with epigenetic modification to OXTR by suggesting that OXTR methylation reflects a decrease in the extent to which social information automatically captures attention. We highlight the importance that treatment efficacy be considered in relation to individual differences in molecular makeup, and that future studies aimed at uncovering biomarkers of disorder carefully consider measurement at both the biological and phenotypic level.

Oxytocin receptor genotype and low economic privilege reverses ventral striatum-social anxiety association.

Gonzalez MZ, Puglia MH, Morris JP, Connelly JJ. Soc Neurosci. 2017 Nov 17:1-13.

Oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphisms, lower ventral striatum (VS) response to social stimuli, and lower economic privilege have been independently associated with depression and anxiety. However, the interactions between these risk factors are unknown. One hundred and fifty-seven healthy adult participants genotyped for OXTR rs237915 completed a common emotion-matching task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Past economic privilege and depression and anxiety symptoms were concurrently assessed through validated self-report measures. The data revealed an interaction between rs237915 genotype and economic privilege on the neural response to negative faces. C-carriers showed decreased VS activation and increased connectivity between the VS and ventromedial prefrontal cortex with increased economic privilege. TT homozygotes showed the reverse pattern. Low VS response to negative faces predicted increased social anxiety, but only for those with either lower economic privilege or the C allele. For those with both, low VS response was associated with paradoxically lower social anxiety. Findings suggest that economic privilege and OXTR rs237915 genotype may calibrate social motivational neural systems for better or worse. While lower VS response to negative faces may generally constitute a risk factor for social anxiety, lower response to social cues may be a benefit for those with dual risk.

Neuroimaging epigenetics: Challenges and recommendations for best practices.

Lancaster K, Morris JP, Connelly JJ.  Neuroscience. 2017 Aug 8.

Neuroimaging epigenetics is an interdisciplinary application of epigenetics to cognitive neuroscience that seeks to identify molecular and neural predictors of human behavior. This approach can be sensitive to the dynamic interaction between biological predisposition and environmental influences, and is potentially more informative than an approach using static genetic code. Recent work in this field has generated considerable enthusiasm, yet caution is warranted since any novel cross-disciplinary approach lacks a set of established conventions or standards. In this paper we review existing research in the field of imaging epigenetics, outline important caveats and considerations, and suggest a set of guidelines for researchers conducting this work.

Interaction between oxytocin receptor DNA methylation and genotype is associated with risk of postpartum depression in women without depression in pregnancy.

Bell AF, Carter CS, Steer CD, Golding J, Davis JM, Steffen AD, Rubin LH, Lillard TS, Gregory SP, Harris JC, Connelly JJ.  Front Genet.  2015; 6:243.

Postpartum depression (PPD) affects up to 19% of women, negatively impacting maternal and infant health. Reductions in plasma oxytocin levels have been associated with PPD and heritability studies have established a genetic contribution. Epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) has been demonstrated and we hypothesized that individual epigenetic variability at OXTR may impact the development of PPD and that such variability may be central to predicting risk. This case-control study is nested within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children and included 269 cases with PPD and 276 controls matched on age group, parity, and presence or absence of depressive symptoms in pregnancy as assessed by the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. OXTR DNA methylation (CpG site -934) and genotype (rs53576 and rs2254298) were assayed from DNA extracted from blood collected during pregnancy. Conditional logistic regression was used to estimate odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for the association of elevated symptoms of PPD with genotype, methylation, and their interaction adjusted for psychosocial factors (n = 500). There was evidence of an interaction between rs53576 and methylation in the OXTR gene amongst women who did not have depression prenatally but developed PPD (p interaction = 0.026, adjusted for covariates, n = 257). Those women with GG genotype showed 2.63 greater odds of PPD for every 10% increase in methylation level (95% CI: 1.37, 5.03), whereas methylation was unrelated to PPD amongst "A" carriers (OR = 1.00, 95% CI: 0.58, 1.73). There was no such interaction among women with PPD and prenatal depression. These data indicate that epigenetic variation that decreases expression of OXTR in a susceptible genotype may play a contributory role in the etiology of PPD.

Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene influences the perception of anger and fear in the human brain.

Puglia MH, Lilliard TS, Morris JP, Connelly JJ.  PNAS. 2015 Mar 17;112(11):3308-13.

In humans, the neuropeptide oxytocin plays a critical role in social and emotional behavior. The actions of this molecule are dependent on a protein that acts as its receptor, which is encoded by the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). DNA methylation of OXTR, an epigenetic modification, directly influences gene transcription and is variable in humans. However, the impact of this variability on specific social behaviors is unknown. We hypothesized that variability in OXTR methylation impacts social perceptual processes often linked with oxytocin, such as perception of facial emotions. Using an imaging epigenetic approach, we established a relationship between OXTR methylation and neural activity in response to emotional face processing. Specifically, high levels of OXTR methylation were associated with greater amounts of activity in regions associated with face and emotion processing including amygdala, fusiform, and insula. Importantly, we found that these higher levels of OXTR methylation were also associated with decreased functional coupling of amygdala with regions involved in affect appraisal and emotion regulation. These data indicate that the human endogenous oxytocin system is involved in attenuation of the fear response, corroborating research implicating intranasal oxytocin in the same processes. Our findings highlight the importance of including epigenetic mechanisms in the description of the endogenous oxytocin system and further support a central role for oxytocin in social cognition. This approach linking epigenetic variability with neural endophenotypes may broadly explain individual differences in phenotype including susceptibility or resilience to disease.

DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene predicts neural response to ambiguous social stimuli.

Jack A, Connelly JJ, Morris JP.  Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Oct 10;6:280.

Oxytocin and its receptor (OXTR) play an important role in a variety of social perceptual and affiliative processes. Individual variability in social information processing likely has a strong heritable component, and as such, many investigations have established an association between common genetic variants of OXTR and variability in the social phenotype. However, to date, these investigations have primarily focused only on changes in the sequence of DNA without considering the role of epigenetic factors. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism by which cells control transcription through modification of chromatin structure. DNA methylation of OXTR decreases expression of the gene and high levels of methylation have been associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This link between epigenetic variability and social phenotype allows for the possibility that social processes are under epigenetic control. We hypothesized that the level of DNA methylation of OXTR would predict individual variability in social perception. Using the brain's sensitivity to displays of animacy as a neural endophenotype of social perception, we found significant associations between the degree of OXTR methylation and brain activity evoked by the perception of animacy. Our results suggest that consideration of DNA methylation may substantially improve our ability to explain individual differences in imaging genetic association studies.

Genomic and epigenetic evidence for oxytocin receptor deficiency in autism.

Gregory SG, Connelly JJ, Towers AJ, Johnson J, Biscocho D, Markunas CA, Lintas C, Abramson RK, Wright HH, Ellis P, Langford CF, Worley G, Delong GR, Murphy SK, Cuccaro ML, Persico A, Pericak-Vance MA.  BMC Med. 2009 Oct 22;7:62.

Autism comprises a spectrum of behavioral and cognitive disturbances of childhood development and is known to be highly heritable. Although numerous approaches have been used to identify genes implicated in the development of autism, less than 10% of autism cases have been attributed to single gene disorders.
We describe the use of high-resolution genome-wide tilepath microarrays and comparative genomic hybridization to identify copy number variants within 119 probands from multiplex autism families. We next carried out DNA methylation analysis by bisulfite sequencing in a proband and his family, expanding this analysis to methylation analysis of peripheral blood and temporal cortex DNA of autism cases and matched controls from independent datasets. We also assessed oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene expression within the temporal cortex tissue by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
Our analysis revealed a genomic deletion containing the oxytocin receptor gene, OXTR (MIM accession no.: 167055), previously implicated in autism, was present in an autism proband and his mother who exhibits symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The proband's affected sibling did not harbor this deletion but instead may exhibit epigenetic misregulation of this gene through aberrant gene silencing by DNA methylation. Further DNA methylation analysis of the CpG island known to regulate OXTR expression identified several CpG dinucleotides that show independent statistically significant increases in the DNA methylation status in the peripheral blood cells and temporal cortex in independent datasets of individuals with autism as compared to control samples. Associated with the increase in methylation of these CpG dinucleotides is our finding that OXTR mRNA showed decreased expression in the temporal cortex tissue of autism cases matched for age and sex compared to controls.
Together, these data provide further evidence for the role of OXTR and the oxytocin signaling pathway in the etiology of autism and, for the first time, implicate the epigenetic regulation of OXTR in the development of the disorder.

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