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Chronic psychological stress alters gene expression in rat colon epithelial cells promoting chromatin remodeling, barrier dysfunction and inflammation.


Chronic stress is commonly associated with enhanced abdominal pain (visceral hypersensitivity), but the cellular mechanisms underlying how chronic stress induces visceral hypersensitivity are poorly understood. In this study, we examined changes in gene expression in colon epithelial cells from a rat model using RNA-sequencing to examine stress-induced changes to the transcriptome. Following chronic stress, the most significantly up-regulated genes included , , , , , , and down-regulated genes including , , , , , and . The primary altered biological processes revealed by network enrichment analysis were inflammation/immune response, tissue morphogenesis and development, and nucleosome/chromatin assembly. The most significantly down-regulated process was the digestive system development/function, whereas the most significantly up-regulated processes were inflammatory response, organismal injury, and chromatin remodeling mediated by H3K9 methylation. Furthermore, a subpopulation of stressed rats demonstrated very significantly altered gene expression and transcript isoforms, enriched for the differential expression of genes involved in the inflammatory response, including upregulation of cytokine and chemokine receptor gene expression coupled with downregulation of epithelial adherens and tight junction mRNAs. In summary, these findings support that chronic stress is associated with increased levels of cytokines and chemokines, their downstream signaling pathways coupled to dysregulation of intestinal cell development and function. Epigenetic regulation of chromatin remodeling likely plays a prominent role in this process. Results also suggest that super enhancers play a primary role in chronic stress-associated intestinal barrier dysfunction.