Abnormal DNA methylation within HPA-axis genes years after paediatric critical illness

Grégoire Coppens, Ilse Vanhorebeek, Fabian Güiza, Inge Derese, Pieter J. Wouters, Arno Téblick, Karolijn Dulfer, Koen F. Joosten, Sascha C. Verbruggen, Greet Van den Berghe*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background: Critically ill children suffer from impaired physical/neurocognitive development 2 years later. Glucocorticoid treatment alters DNA methylation within the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis which may impair normal brain development, cognition and behaviour. We tested the hypothesis that paediatric-intensive-care-unit (PICU) patients, sex- and age-dependently, show long-term abnormal DNA methylation within the HPA-axis layers, possibly aggravated by glucocorticoid treatment in the PICU, which may contribute to the long-term developmental impairments. Results: In a pre-planned secondary analysis of the multicentre PEPaNIC-RCT and its 2-year follow-up, we identified differentially methylated positions and differentially methylated regions within HPA-axis genes in buccal mucosa DNA from 818 former PICU patients 2 years after PICU admission (n = 608 no glucocorticoid treatment; n = 210 glucocorticoid treatment) versus 392 healthy children and assessed interaction with sex and age, role of glucocorticoid treatment in the PICU and associations with long-term developmental impairments. Adjusting for technical variation and baseline risk factors and correcting for multiple testing (false discovery rate < 0.05), former PICU patients showed abnormal DNA methylation of 26 CpG sites (within CRHR1, POMC, MC2R, NR3C1, FKBP5, HSD11B1, SRD5A1, AKR1D1, DUSP1, TSC22D3 and TNF) and three DNA regions (within AVP, TSC22D3 and TNF) that were mostly hypomethylated. These abnormalities were sex-independent and only partially age-dependent. Abnormal methylation of three CpG sites within FKBP5 and one CpG site within SRD5A1 and AKR1D1 was partly attributable to glucocorticoid treatment during PICU stay. Finally, abnormal methylation within FKBP5 and AKR1D1 was most robustly associated with long-term impaired development. Conclusions: Two years after critical illness in children, abnormal methylation within HPA-axis genes was present, predominantly within FKBP5 and AKR1D1, partly attributable to glucocorticoid treatment in the PICU, and explaining part of the long-term developmental impairments. These data call for caution regarding liberal glucocorticoid use in the PICU.

Original languageEnglish
Article number31
JournalClinical Epigenetics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2024

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