Early Adversity May Change Behavior of Stress-Related Genes

Overhead view of kid sitting on skateboardBeing raised in an institutional or foster care setting may affect the way genes related to stress behave, according to a study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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.

Children raised in institutional or foster care settings had measurable changes in FKBP5 and SLC6A4, two genes believed to be related to stress. The more time a child spent in foster care or an institution, the less methylation they had in these genes. This suggests the stress of early institutionalization may have lasting effects on genetic expression.

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.


  1. Assessing the effects of foster care: Mental health outcomes from the Casey National Alumni Study [PDF]. (n.d.). Seattle: Casey Family Programs.
  2. 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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  • Kaye


    June 13th, 2016 at 12:59 PM

    I just have no firm understanding of how this even happens, how environmental things could alter how the genes express themselves. I don’t know, it’s cool to think about but weird too

  • hanna


    June 16th, 2016 at 9:48 AM

    I feel so sorry for these children who have to grow up in an institutional situation, with no family to call their own. It saddens me to think that they know from a very early age that they are different in a way that no one would want to be, and that they just have to hope and pray that family arrives to take them to a good home

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