Epigenetic Epidemiology of Psychiatric Disorders

  • Bart P. F. RuttenEmail author
  • Jim van Os


Exciting developments in the field of epigenetics have generated great interest within psychiatric epidemiology to focus on direct and indirect evidence for epigenetic involvement in behavior, mental health, and complex psychiatric disorders. Epidemiologic evidence on epigenetics in psychiatry, however, is currently very sparsely available. With the aim to address the current status of the literature on evidence indicative of involvement of epigenetic mechanisms in psychiatric disorders, we describe a clear role for epigenetic mechanisms in development and aging of the brain, with experiences and environmental exposures particularly during early life having considerable impact on the development of functional abilities of the brain. Besides the psychiatric consequences of classical syndromes of genetic imprinting in humans, findings of twin discordance, parent-of-origin effects, paternal age effects, and sex differences in psychiatric disorders suggest epigenetic involvement in the etiology of psychiatric disorders. The evidence is further strengthened by observations of endurable effects of various environmental exposures during life on risk of psychiatric disorders, and preliminary epigenetic studies showing differential epigenetic profiles in patients with several psychiatric disorders. Findings of these first (and preliminary) epigenetic studies should be interpreted with caution because of small samples sizes, lack of replication, limitations in the etiologic validity of psychiatric diagnoses, and in accessibility of the regions and cell types of the brain at “appropriate” periods during life. Despite the sparse availability, the current evidence for epigenetic involvement in (particularly early) brain development, mental health, and psychiatric disorders appears very promising, and may be used in bringing together inherited and acquired risk factors into a neurodevelopmental etiological model of psychiatric disorders with epigenetics as a plausible key mediating mechanism. Given the dynamic nature of epigenetic regulation of gene expression and the potential reversibility of epigenetic modifications, future well-designed multidisciplinary and translational studies will be of key importance in order to identify new targets for prevention and therapeutic strategies.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Psychiatric Disorder Epigenetic Mechanism Angelman Syndrome Social Defeat Stress 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



5-methyl cytidine


Alzheimer’s disease


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder


v-akt murine thymoma viral oncogene homolog 1


Apolipoprotein E


Amyloid precursor protein


Brain derived neurotrophic factor




Cadherin 1


Cyclin-dependent kinase 5




Dichorionic monozygotic


DNA methyl transferase


Dopamine D2 receptor


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th edition




Gamma-aminobutyric acid


Glutamic-acid decarboxylase


Histone H4 lysine 12


Histone H4 lysine 16


Histone cluster 1, H2ag


Histone cluster 1, H2ah


Histone cluster 1, H2bj


Histone cluster 1, H2bk


Histone cluster 1, H4i


Telomerase reverse transcriptase


Microtubule-associated protein tau


Monochorionic monozygotic


Methyl CpG binding protein 2


Multiple sclerosis


Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase




Neuronal PAS domain protein 3


Glucocorticoid receptor


One-carbon metabolism


Pregnancy and birth complications


Polymerase chain reaction


Peptidylprolyl isomerae E-like


Presenilin 1


Post-traumatic stress disorder




Sirtuin 3


SWI/SNF related, matrix associated, actin dependent regulator of chromatin, subfamily a, member 5


Spermine synthase


Single nucleotide polymorphism




Neurotrophic tyrosine kinase, receptor, type 2


Ubiquitin protein ligase E3A


World Health Organization


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, School for Mental Health and Neuroscience, European Graduate School of Neuroscience (EURON), South Limburg Mental Health Research and Teaching Network (SEARCH)Maastricht University Medical CentreMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Psychosis Studies, Institute of PsychiatryKing’s College London, King’s Health PartnersLondonUK

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