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Childhood urbanization affects prefrontal cortical responses to trait anxiety and interacts with polygenic risk for depression

By Xiao Zhang, Hao Yan, Hao Yu, Xin Zhao, Shefali Shah, Zheng Dong, Guang Yang, Xiaoxi Zhang, Timothy Muse, Jing Li, Sisi Jiang, Jinmin Liao, Yuyanan Zhang, Qiang Chen, Daniel R Weinberger, Weihua Yue, Dai Zhang, Hao Yang Tan

Posted 12 Jan 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/246876 (published DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.03.323)

Global increases in urbanization have brought dramatic economic, environmental and social changes. However, less is understood about how these may influence disease-related brain mechanisms underlying epidemiological observations that urban birth and childhoods may increase the risk for neuropsychiatric disorders, including increased social stress and depression. In a genetically homogeneous Han Chinese adult population with divergent urban and rural birth and childhoods, we examined the structural and functional MRI neural correlates of childhood urbanicity, focusing on behavioral traits responding to social status threats, and polygenic risk for depression. Subjects with divergent rural and urban childhoods were similar in adult socioeconomic status and were genetically homogeneous. Urban childhoods, however, were associated with higher trait anxiety-depression. On structural MRI, urban childhoods were associated with relatively reduced medial prefrontal gray matter volumes. Functional medial prefrontal engagement under social status threat during working memory correlated with trait anxiety-depression in subjects with urban childhoods, to a significantly greater extent than in their rural counterparts, implicating an exaggerated physiological response to the threat context. Stress-associated medial prefrontal engagement also interacted with polygenic risk for depression, significantly predicting a differential response in individuals with urban but not rural childhoods. Developmental urbanicity thus differentially influenced medial prefrontal structure and function, at least in part through mechanisms associated with the neural processing of social status threat, trait anxiety, and genetic risk for depression, which may be factors in the association of urbanicity with adult psychopathology. Significance Statement Urban living has been associated with social inequalities and stress. However, less is understood about the neural underpinnings by which these stressors affect disease risk, and in particular, genetic risk for depression. Leveraging urbanization in China, we studied adults with diverse urban and rural upbringings, who were genetically homogeneous and with similar current socioeconomic status, to isolate the effects of childhood urbanicity. At medial prefrontal cortex, a region critical for processing emotional stressors and social status, genetic risk for depression resulted in more deleterious function under stress in individuals with urban, but not rural childhoods. This implicates medial prefrontal cortex’s critical role in brain development, integrating genetic mechanisms of stress and depression with the childhood environment.

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