Can DNA methylation research answer important questions about mental health?

The recent findings were made after researchers studied data from over 9,000 Generation Scotland volunteers.


Our experiences and environment, during early life and childhood, affect how we react to stressful situations in later life. This influences our overall adult mental health. One possible reason for this effect could be small changes in genes, which are turned on and off early in our lives. 

Generation Scotland is ideal for researching this. We have information about early life, adult mental health, and data for those small genetic changes, known as DNA methylation, for more than 9,000 volunteers. In a recent study, researchers combined all this data together to understand how people's genes and environment might affect mental health.

The researchers, based at The University of Edinburgh, found some changes to the genes being turned on and off for people born preterm or with a low birth weight. These changes were in genes involved in the development of two of our senses: sight and hearing.

Having depression as an adult influenced DNA methylation at a couple of bits of the genome. However, there was no overlap between these bits and the ones related to the early life experiences. This reveals that DNA methylation is not likely to be responsible for the connection between challenges in early life and adult mental health.

Only half of our volunteers have DNA methylation data because the rest of the blood samples haven't had the information taken from them yet. The good news is, that should change soon. Hopefully, with an even bigger sample, the researchers can reveal more insights to improve physical and mental health.

This research was published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics. The full publication can be found in the link below.

Methylome-wide association study of early life stressors and adult mental health