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Epigenetics. 2011 Apr;6(4):400-4. Epub 2011 Apr 1.

The urban environment and mental disorders: Epigenetic links.

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  • 1Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.


For the first time in human history, more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas and this is projected to increase to two-thirds by 2030. This increased urbanity of the world's population has substantial public health implications. Nearly a century of research has shown higher risk of mental disorder among persons living in urban versus rural areas. Epidemiologic research has documented that associations between particular features of the urban environment, such as concentrated disadvantage, residential segregation and social norms, contribute to the risk of mental illness. We propose that changes in DNA methylation may be one potential mechanism through which features of the urban environment contribute to psychopathology. Recent advances in animal models and human correlation studies suggest DNA methylation as a promising mechanism that can explain how the environment "gets under the skin." Aberrant DNA methylation signatures characterize mental disorders in community settings. Emerging evidence of associations between exposure to features of the environment and methylation patterns may lead toward the identification of mechanisms that explain the link between urban environments and mental disorders. Importantly, evidence that epigenetic changes are reversible offers new opportunities for ameliorating the impact of adverse urban environments on human health.

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