Genes and life experiences are not the only factors that affect outcomes. Researchers are increasingly looking at epigenetic factors, as they did in this study. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression—the process by which genes are turned “on” or “off” and the ways in which genes interact with one another. A variety of factors, ranging from nutrition and the uterine environment to childhood experiences, can change the behavior of genes.
How Adversity Changes Gene Expression
To assess the effects of early adversity on gene behavior, researchers followed 208 children who participated in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The children averaged 22 months old at the study’s inception, and were 12 years old at its completion.
Half of the children were raised in foster care or institutional settings. These children were compared to age-matched children from the same geographic regions. Researchers extracted skin cells from the children’s mouths when they were 12 to assess their genes and measure methylation. Methylation modifies genes or groups of genes, so measuring it is one way to assess epigenetic changes.
Other Research on Early Life Stress
Previous research on mice indicates faster growth of the hippocampus in response to early life stress, which can lead to psychological troubles later in life. Other research has shown children raised in foster care have higher rates of behavioral issues and mental health conditions. Changes in gene expression might be one factor in this increase in adverse outcomes.
- Assessing the effects of foster care: Mental health outcomes from the Casey National Alumni Study [PDF]. (n.d.). Seattle: Casey Family Programs.
- Non, A. L., Hollister, B. M., Humphreys, K. L., Childebayeva, A., Esteves, K., Zeanah, C. H., . . . Drury, S. S. (2016). DNA methylation at stress-related genes is associated with exposure to early life institutionalization. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23010
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