The monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene has been suggested as a prime candidate in the pathogenesis of panic disorder. In the present study, DNA methylation patterns in the MAOA regulatory and exon 1/intron 1 region were investigated for association with panic disorder with particular attention to possible effects of gender and environmental factors.
Sixty-five patients with panic disorder (44 females, 21 males) and 65 healthy controls were analysed for DNA methylation status at 42 MAOA CpG sites via direct sequencing of sodium bisulfate treated DNA extracted from blood cells. The occurrence of recent positive and negative life events was ascertained. Male subjects showed no or only very minor methylation with some evidence for relative hypomethylation at one CpG site in intron 1 in patients compared to controls. Female patients exhibited significantly lower methylation than healthy controls at 10 MAOA CpG sites in the promoter as well as in exon/intron 1, with significance surviving correction for multiple testing at four CpG sites (p⩽0.001). Furthermore, in female subjects the occurrence of negative life events was associated with relatively decreased methylation, while positive life events were associated with increased methylation. The present pilot data suggest a potential role of MAOA gene hypomethylation in the pathogenesis of panic disorder particularly in female patients, possibly mediating a detrimental influence of negative life events. Future studies are warranted to replicate the present finding in independent samples, preferably in a longitudinal design.