Background: Previous research has demonstrated that epigenetic changes in specific hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) genes may predict successful psychotherapy in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent Phase 3 clinical trial reported high efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted therapy for treating patients with severe PTSD compared to a therapy with placebo group (NCT03537014). This raises important questions regarding potential mechanisms of MDMA-assisted therapy. In the present study, we examined epigenetic changes in three key HPA axis genes before and after MDMA and placebo with therapy. As a pilot sub-study to the parent clinical trial, we assessed potential HPA epigenetic predictors for treatment response with genomic DNA derived from saliva (MDMA, n = 16; placebo, n = 7). Methylation levels at all 259 CpG sites annotated to three HPA genes (CRHR1, FKBP5, and NR3C1) were assessed in relation to treatment response as measured by the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS-5; Total Severity Score). Second, group (MDMA vs. placebo) differences in methylation change were assessed for sites that predicted treatment response. Results: Methylation change across groups significantly predicted symptom reduction on 37 of 259 CpG sites tested, with two sites surviving false discovery rate (FDR) correction. Further, the MDMA-treatment group showed more methylation change compared to placebo on one site of the NR3C1 gene. Conclusion: The findings of this study suggest that therapy-related PTSD symptom improvements may be related to DNA methylation changes in HPA genes and such changes may be greater in those receiving MDMA-assisted therapy. These findings can be used to generate hypothesis driven analyses for future studies with larger cohorts.
|Journal||Frontiers in Psychiatry|
|State||Published - 6 Feb 2023|
- DNA methylation
- MDMA-assisted therapy
- glucocorticoid receptor