Research ArticleNeuroscience

Chaperoning epigenetics: FKBP51 decreases the activity of DNMT1 and mediates epigenetic effects of the antidepressant paroxetine

Sci. Signal.  24 Nov 2015:
Vol. 8, Issue 404, pp. ra119
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aac7695

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Antidepressants chaperone DNA methylation

Epigenetic changes are associated with depression. Some depressed patients have increased DNA methylation and decreased expression of the gene encoding BDNF, a secreted factor important for synaptic plasticity. Rein et al. found that some antidepressants inhibit epigenetic changes by causing a switch in chaperone binding to the DNA methyltransferase DNMT1. The chaperones FKBP51 and FKBP52 competed for binding to CDK5, a kinase that activates DNMT1. The authors found that cells from depressed patients or cultured mouse astrocytes exposed to the antidepressant paroxetine favored the FKBP51-CDK5 interaction, resulting in reduced activity of DNMT1 and DNA methylation, and increased the expression of BDNF. These effects of paroxetine on patient blood cells isolated before therapy correlated with a positive clinical response to antidepressants, suggesting that a simple blood test may aid in personalizing treatment for depression.


Epigenetic processes, such as DNA methylation, and molecular chaperones, including FK506-binding protein 51 (FKBP51), are independently implicated in stress-related mental disorders and antidepressant drug action. FKBP51 associates with cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (CDK5), which is one of several kinases that phosphorylates and activates DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1). We searched for a functional link between FKBP51 (encoded by FKBP5) and DNMT1 in cells from mice and humans, including those from depressed patients, and found that FKBP51 competed with its close homolog FKBP52 for association with CDK5. In human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cells, expression of FKBP51 displaced FKBP52 from CDK5, decreased the interaction of CDK5 with DNMT1, reduced the phosphorylation and enzymatic activity of DNMT1, and diminished global DNA methylation. In mouse embryonic fibroblasts and primary mouse astrocytes, FKBP51 mediated several effects of paroxetine, namely, decreased the protein-protein interactions of DNMT1 with CDK5 and FKBP52, reduced phosphorylation of DNMT1, and decreased the methylation and increased the expression of the gene encoding brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Bdnf). In human peripheral blood cells, FKBP5 expression inversely correlated with both global and BDNF methylation. Peripheral blood cells isolated from depressed patients that were then treated ex vivo with paroxetine revealed that the abundance of BDNF positively correlated and phosphorylated DNMT1 inversely correlated with that of FKBP51 in cells and with clinical treatment success in patients, supporting the relevance of this FKBP51-directed pathway that prevents epigenetic suppression of gene expression.

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