Role of epigenetics in long-term health effects of early life stress
Can epigenetic changes explain associations between early life stress and health outcomes?
- Marieke Tollenaar
It has been assumed for quite some time that both genes and environment contribute to the etiology of stress-related disorders like anxiety and depression. An often studied phenomena in this regard is the genetic vulnerability to early life stress. In addition, research indicates that the effects of early life stress not only affect mental health, but physical health as well, such as heightened risks for metabolic and age-related diseases.
However, many genetic studies in this area still lack replication or exploration of mechanistic pathways, and the exact mechanisms by which the environment interacts with vulnerability genes is still being unraveled. One recent area of research that is trying to get a grip on these interactions is that of epigenetics, including the study of methylation patterns. Methylation of genes is associated with the (up- or down-regulated) activity of genes, and is under the influence of both internal and external triggers. Early life stress is assumed to be such an external trigger, and may have its long lasting impact on both physical and mental health by affecting the activity, and hence functionality, of genes.
In a new research line I will examine the associations between early life stress and stress-related (mental) health outcomes in a cohort of approximately 200 Dutch children that have been followed for 10 years since birth by Prof. Carolina de Weerth from the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Their mothers were included in the study during the last trimester of pregnancy, giving information on prenatal stress as well. Goal is to investigate whether gene methylation patterns in the children are associated with their physical and mental health, and whether these patterns are influenced by prenatal and early life stress, and possibly even by the mothers' own early life stress experiences.
Future studies will focus on possible interventions aimed at changing stress-related health problems, possibly via dietary supplements or medications that can influence gene methylation in stress-related genes.
Nijmegen: Prof. C. de Weerth, Dr. R. Beijers
Montreal: Prof. K. O’Donnell, Prof. M. Meaney
Utrecht: Prof. M. Boks