Fetal Alcohol Programming of Hypothalamic Proopiomelanocortin System by Epigenetic Mechanisms and Later Life Vulnerability to Stress

Authors

  • Rola Bekdash,

    1. Endocrinology Program, Department of Animal Sciences, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
    2. Neuroscience Graduate Program, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
    Current affiliation:
    1. Department of Anesthesiology, Columbia University, New York, NY, 10032.
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  • Changqing Zhang,

    1. Endocrinology Program, Department of Animal Sciences, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
    2. Neuroscience Graduate Program, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
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  • Dipak Sarkar

    Corresponding author
    1. Endocrinology Program, Department of Animal Sciences, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
    2. Neuroscience Graduate Program, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
    • Reprint requests: Professor Dipak K. Sarkar, Endocrine Research Facility, 67 Poultry Farm Lane, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Tel.: 732-932-1529; Fax: 732-932-4134; E-mail: sarkar@aesop.rutgers.edu

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Abstract

Hypothalamic proopiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons, one of the major regulators of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, immune functions, and energy homeostasis, are vulnerable to the adverse effects of fetal alcohol exposure (FAE). These effects are manifested in POMC neurons by a decrease in Pomc gene expression, a decrement in the levels of its derived peptide β-endorphin and a dysregulation of the stress response in the adult offspring. The HPA axis is a major neuroendocrine system with pivotal physiological functions and mode of regulation. This system has been shown to be perturbed by prenatal alcohol exposure. It has been demonstrated that the perturbation of the HPA axis by FAE is long-lasting and is linked to molecular, neurophysiological, and behavioral changes in exposed individuals. Recently, we showed that the dysregulation of the POMC system function by FAE is induced by epigenetic mechanisms such as hypermethylation of Pomc gene promoter and an alteration in histone marks in POMC neurons. This developmental programming of the POMC system by FAE altered the transcriptome in POMC neurons and induced a hyperresponse to stress in adulthood. These long-lasting epigenetic changes influenced subsequent generations via the male germline. We also demonstrated that the epigenetic programming of the POMC system by FAE was reversed in adulthood with the application of the inhibitors of DNA methylation or histone modifications. Thus, prenatal environmental influences, such as alcohol exposure, could epigenetically modulate POMC neuronal circuits and function to shape adult behavioral patterns. Identifying specific epigenetic factors in hypothalamic POMC neurons that are modulated by fetal alcohol and target Pomc gene could be potentially useful for the development of new therapeutic approaches to treat stress-related diseases in patients with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

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