Although there is evidence to link schizophrenia (SCZ) and bipolar disorder (BD) to genetic and environmental factors, specific individual or groups of genes/factors causative of the disease have been elusive to the research community. An understanding of the molecular aberrations that cause these mental illnesses requires comprehensive approaches that examine both genetic and epigenetic factors. Because of the overwhelming evidence for the role of environmental factors in the disease presentation, our initial approach involved deciphering how epigenetic changes resulting from promoter DNA methylation affect gene expression in SCZ and BD. Apparently, the central reversible but covalent epigenetic modification to DNA is derived from methylation of the cytosine residues that is potentially heritable and can affect gene expression and downstream activities. Environmental factors can influence DNA methylation patterns and hence alter gene expression. Such changes can be especially problematic in individuals with genetic susceptibilities to specific diseases. Recent reports from our laboratory provided compelling evidence that both hyper- and hypo-DNA methylation changes of the regulatory regions play critical roles in defining the altered functionality of genes in major psychiatric disorders such as SCZ and BD. In this chapter, we outline the technical details of the methods that could help to expand this line of research to assist with compiling the differential methylation-mediated epigenetic alterations that are responsible for the pathogenesis of SCZ, BD, and other mental diseases. We use the genes of the extended dopaminergic (DAergic) system such as membrane-bound catechol-O-methyltransferase (MB-COMT), monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), dopamine transporter 1 (DAT1), tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), dopamine (DA) receptors1 and 2 (DRD1/2), and related genes (e.g., reelin [RELN] and brain-derived neurotrophic factor [BDNF]) to illustrate the associations between differential promoter DNA methylations and disease phenotype. It is our hope that comprehensive analyses of the DAergic system as the prototype could provide the impetus and molecular basis to uncover early markers for diagnosis, help in the understanding of differences in disease severity in individuals with similar or identical genetic makeup, and assist with the identification of novel targets for therapeutic applications.
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