Epigenetic regulation of nervous system development by DNA methylation and histone deacetylation

Jessica L. MacDonald, A. Jane Roskams

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Alterations in the epigenetic modulation of gene expression have been implicated in several developmental disorders, cancer, and recently, in a variety of mental retardation and complex psychiatric disorders. A great deal of effort is now being focused on why the nervous system may be susceptible to shifts in activity of epigenetic modifiers. The answer may simply be that the mammalian nervous system must first produce the most complex degree of developmental patterning in biology and hardwire cells functionally in place postnatally, while still allowing for significant plasticity in order for the brain to respond to a rapidly changing environment. DNA methylation and histone deacetylation are two major epigenetic modifications that contribute to the stability of gene expression states. Perturbing DNA methylation, or disrupting the downstream response to DNA methylation - methyl-CpG-binding domain proteins (MBDs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs) - by genetic or pharmacological means, has revealed a critical requirement for epigenetic regulation in brain development, learning, and mature nervous system stability, and has identified the first distinct gene sets that are epigenetically regulated within the nervous system. Epigenetically modifying chromatin structure in response to different stimuli appears to be an ideal mechanism to generate continuous cellular diversity and coordinate shifts in gene expression at successive stages of brain development - all the way from deciding which kind of a neuron to generate, through to how many synapses a neuron can support. Here, we review the evidence supporting a role for DNA methylation and histone deacetylation in nervous system development and mature function, and present a basis from which to understand how the clinical use of HDAC inhibitors may impact nervous system function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)170-183
Number of pages14
JournalProgress in Neurobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • DNA methyl transferase
  • Gene expression
  • Genomic instability
  • Histone deacetylase
  • Neural development
  • Neurodegeneration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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