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Can stress in children alter gene expression in adulthood?

Published in Scientific Reports, Papale and colleagues investigated the links between stress in children and altered gene expression in adulthood.


Adults who experienced childhood stress, including abuse and neglect, are at higher risk for mental and physical health issues, including mood disorders. Because of this, we need to understand how stress in children can lead to these issues later in life so that we can come up with better treatments.

Recently, researchers have discovered that many different factors, including stress, can affect gene expression, changing the way our body regulates our physiological responses. This occurs via a process called DNA methylation, in which certain parts of DNA are physically blocked from being copied and used.

In a new paper in Scientific Reports, US researchers Papale and colleagues investigated the ways in which stress in children affects gene expression. The researchers collected saliva from 18 girls between 9 and 12 years old. Half of these girls had experienced normal amounts of stress, while the other half had experienced high amounts of stress based on the Youth Life Stress Interview. Half of these children were of European ancestry. The researchers then analyzed DNA methylation in the girls’ saliva.

The results from Papale and colleagues’ study show that children who had experienced high stress had more behavioral problems, and had different DNA methylation patterns than children who had not experienced stress at 550 locations on their genome. These 550 locations comprised 122 genes, of which 31 are known to be associated with stress responses in adults.

These results confirm that these stress-linked genes are modified by childhood stress, and also provide a new avenue of research for methods of treating the mental and physical health issues that can arise from childhood stress.

Additional genes that were modified in children who underwent high stress were linked to cholesterol accumulation and hormone receptors. This suggests additional ways in which adult mental and physical health issues may be linked to childhood stress.

In the future, new research must assess these links between stress and gene expression experimentally and should confirm these results in larger samples of children and adults.

Written by C.I. Villamil

Reference: Papale et al. 2018. Differentially methylated genes in saliva are linked to childhood stress. Scientific Reports.



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