The glucocorticoid receptor: transcriptional regulation and epigenetic programming. (Doctoral thesis)
- Clinical and Applied Virology
Stress represents a significant problem for Western societies inducing costs as high as 3-4 % of the European gross national products, a burden that is continually increasing (WHO Briefing, EUR/04/5047810/B6). The classical stress response system is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which acts to restore homeostasis after disturbances. Two major components within the HPA axis system are the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) and the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR). Cortisol, released from the adrenal glands at the end of the HPA axis, binds to MRs and with a 10 fold lower affinity to GRs. Both, impairment of the HPA axis and an imbalance in the MR/GR ratio enhances the risk for infection, inflammation and stress related psychiatric disorders. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterised by a variety of symptoms, however, one of the most consistent findings is the hyperactivity of the HPA axis. This may be the result of lower numbers or reduced activity of GRs and MRs. The GR gene consists of multiple alternative first exons resulting in different GR mRNA transcripts whereas for the MR only two first exons are known to date. Both, the human GR promoter 1F and the homologue rat Gr promoter 1.7 seem to be susceptible to methylation during stressful early life events resulting in lower 1F/1.7 transcript levels. It was proposed that this is due to methylation of a NGFI-A binding site in both, the rat promoter 1.7 and the human promoter 1F. The research presented in this thesis was undertaken to determine the differential expression and methylation patterns of GR and MR variants in multiple areas of the limbic brain system in the healthy and depressed human brain. Furthermore, the transcriptional control of the GR transcript 1F was investigated as expression changes of this transcript were associated with MDD, childhood abuse and early life stress. The role of NGFI-A and several other transcription factors on 1F regulation was studied in vitro and the effect of Ngfi-a overexpression on the rat Gr promoter 1.7 in vivo. The susceptibility to epigenetic programming of several GR promoters was investigated in MDD. In addition, changes in methylation levels have been determined in response to a single acute stressor in rodents. Our results showed that GR and MR first exon transcripts are differentially expressed in the human brain, but this is not due to epigenetic programming. We showed that NGFI-A has no effect on endogenous 1F/1.7 expression in vitro and in vivo. We provide evidence that the transcription factor E2F1 is a major element in the transcriptional complex necessary to drive the expression of GR 1F transcripts. In rats, highly individual methylation patterns in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN) suggest that this is not related to the stressor but can rather be interpreted as pre-existing differences. In contrast, the hippocampus showed a much more uniform epigenetic status, but still is susceptible to epigenetic modification even after a single acute stress suggesting a differential „state‟ versus „trait‟ regulation of the GR gene in different brain regions. The results of this thesis have given further insight in the complex transcriptional regulation of GR and MR first exons in health and disease. Epigenetic programming of GR promoters seems to be involved in early life stress and acute stress in adult rats; however, the susceptibility to methylation in response to stress seems to vary between brain regions.