Springer Nature [academic journals on nature.com], Neuropsychopharmacology, 6(40), p. 1528-1538
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Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a commonly occurring and highly disabling disorder. The neuropeptide oxytocin and its receptor (OXTR) have been implicated in social cognition and behavior. The present study - for the first time applying a multi-level epigenetic approach - investigates the role of OXTR gene methylation in categorical, dimensional and intermediate neuroendocrinological/neural network phenotypes of social anxiety. One-hundred and ten unmedicated patients with SAD and matched 110 controls were analyzed for OXTR methylation by direct sequencing of sodium bisulfite-converted DNA extracted from whole blood. Furthermore, OXTR methylation was investigated regarding SAD-related traits (Social Phobia Scale, SPS; Social Interaction Anxiety Scale, SIAS), salivary cortisol response during the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and amygdala responsiveness to social phobia related verbal stimuli using fMRI. Significantly decreased OXTR methylation particularly at CpG Chr3:8 809 437 was associated with (1) the categorical phenotype of SAD (p<0.001, Cohen's d=0.535), (2) increased SPS and SIAS scores (p<0.001), (3) increased cortisol response to the TSST (p=0.02), and (4) increased amygdala responsiveness during social phobia related word processing (right: pcorr<0.001; left: pcorr=0.005). Assuming that decreased OXTR methylation confers increased OXTR expression, the present finding may reflect a compensatory upregulation for pathologically reduced oxytocin levels or a causally relevant increased OXTR activation in SAD and related traits. OXTR methylation patterns might thus serve as peripheral surrogates of oxytocin tone and aid in establishing accessible biomarkers of SAD risk allowing for indicated preventive interventions and personalized treatment approaches targeting the oxytocin system.Neuropsychopharmacology accepted article preview online, 07 January 2015. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.2.