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Soc Sci Med. 2012 Jan;74(1):67-74. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.09.036. Epub 2011 Nov 6.

How does the social environment 'get into the mind'? Epigenetics at the intersection of social and psychiatric epidemiology.

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  • 1Department of Epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health, 1415 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.


The social environment plays a considerable role in determining major psychiatric disorders. Emerging evidence suggests that features of the social environment modify gene expression independently of the primary DNA sequence through epigenetic processes. Accordingly, dysfunction of epigenetic mechanisms offers a plausible mechanism by which an adverse social environment gets "into the mind" and results in poor mental health. The purpose of this review is to provide an overview of the studies suggesting that epigenetic changes introduced by the social environment then manifest as psychological consequences. Our goal is to build a platform to discuss the ways in which future epidemiologic studies may benefit from including epigenetic measures. We focus on schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia nervosa, and substance dependence as examples that highlight the ways in which social environmental exposures, mediated through epigenetic processes, affect mental health.

Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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