Early Experiences Have Lasting Effects on DNA

October 28, 2015 · Posted in Genetics, Risk Factors · Comment 

nurse visits family

It is well established that certain early experiences can affect a person’s risk of developing a mental illness. Adversity in childhood, including abuse or the loss of a parent, is a risk factor not only for diagnosis of a mood disorder, but also for a more difficult course of illness. This may occur through epigenetic means. Epigenetics refers to a process by which environmental factors can change the way that DNA is transcribed, for example through the addition of methyl groups to strands of DNA. This tends to inhibit DNA from being transcribed and producing protein growth factors and other neurochemicals that are important for development.

A study by Kieran J. O’Donnell and colleagues presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry investigated whether epigenetics play a role in the success of a parenting intervention called the Nurse Family Partnership. Participants were 27-year-olds born to women who had received the intervention or a control intervention. Genome-wide DNA methylation was measured in the 188 participants’ blood.

Analysis of the blood revealed that the Nurse Family Partnership intervention was associated with DNA methylation at 1015 sites across 593 genes. Some of these sites were enriched for certain neurodevelopmental processes. Maltreatment in childhood was also associated with methylation at 1552 sites across 878 genes.

Editor’s Note: The take-home message of this landmark study is that maltreatment in childhood exerts lasting effects on the genome via epigenetic mechanisms, but early positive intervention also exerts lasting epigenetic effects, which likely have a normalizing impact.