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Press release

Adversity in a little girl’s life may affect the biology of her future children

Washington D.C | October 3, 2023

By JAACAP Editorial Office

New research finds evidence for biomarkers of negative childhood experiences across generations in male infants.

A study(opens in new tab/window) in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), published by Elsevier, reports that infants whose mothers experienced negative events in their childhood are more likely to show modifications to DNA, or “epigenetic” changes, in certain areas of their genes. The study analyzed data from umbilical cord blood samples from 896 infants whose mothers were part of a decades-long study starting in pregnancy. The study found that mothers’ negative childhood experiences predicted DNA methylation in newborns, but only in males. The authors concluded that DNA methylation, a chemical modification to DNA, may be a biomarker of biological embedding of childhood adversity across generations.

For decades researchers have known that adverse experiences in childhood— like abuse, neglect, or experiencing violence in the household— are correlated with negative health outcomes in adulthood. And, those impacts are even seen in children of parents who experienced adversity in their own childhood. However, researchers have only recently started to examine the biological pathways, by which parents’ adverse experiences in childhood might be affecting future generations’ health. Negative environments don’t change genes themselves, but they can cause epigenetic changes like DNA methylation, altering how the genes express themselves, which can impact development and disease susceptibility. The study’s authors wanted to test whether they could see differences in DNA methylation in newborn babies, based on how much adversity their mother had experienced in childhood.

DNA methylation data are expensive and difficult to collect. The study authors utilized data from the Children of the 90s(opens in new tab/window) study, based at the University of Bristol. Also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), this is a long-term health-research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the parents and their children in detail ever since and is currently recruiting the children and siblings of the original child participants into the study. Using these data, the study’s authors found that several gene areas were more methylated in infants whose mothers had experienced childhood adversity, but only in male infants. That finding is consistent with previous studies that have shown male fetuses to be more vulnerable to environmental conditions in utero.

The study’s authors want to learn more about how these epigenetic changes might affect childhood development and how these changes could be reversed. Studies in mice show that epigenetic alterations from trauma can be changed if the mice are given supportive environments.

“This is really about health equity,” said Pamela Scorza, ScD, MPH, the study’s lead author and director of the Perinatal RISE lab (www.perinatalRISE.org) at Columbia University Medical Center. “Racism and colonialism have created the conditions causing people of color to be more likely to suffer adversities in childhood.

We know there are interventions, like pregnancy and early childhood home-visiting programs, that are meant to provide crucial support to families facing adversities. Being able to see these effects at a biological level could be powerful evidence.”

Scorza and colleagues hope such evidence would help to advocate for greater investment in support during pregnancy and early childhood to remedy health inequities.

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Notes for editors

The article is "Stage 2 Registered Report Epigenetic Intergenerational Transmission: Mothers’ Adverse Childhood Experiences and DNA Methylation," by Pamela Scorza, ScD, MPH, Cristiane S. Duarte, PhD, Seonjoo Lee, PhD, Haotian Wu, MS, PhD, Jonathan Posner, MD, Andrea Baccarelli, PhD, Catherine Monk, PhD. (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2023.02.018). It appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, volume 62, issue 10 (October 2023), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Pamela Scorza, ScD, MPH, at [email protected](opens in new tab/window) or [Phone number (add country code!)].

About JAACAP

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry(opens in new tab/window) (JAACAP) is the official publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. JAACAP is the leading journal focusing exclusively on today's psychiatric research and treatment of the child and adolescent. Published twelve times per year, each issue is committed to its mission of advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families.

The Journal's purpose is to advance research, clinical practice, and theory in child and adolescent psychiatry. It is interested in manuscripts from diverse viewpoints, including genetic, epidemiological, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, social, cultural, and economic. Studies of diagnostic reliability and validity, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment efficacy, and mental health services effectiveness are encouraged. The Journal also seeks to promote the well-being of children and families by publishing scholarly papers on such subjects as health policy, legislation, advocacy, culture and society, and service provision as they pertain to the mental health of children and families.

About Elsevier

As a global leader in scientific information and analytics, Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society. We do this by facilitating insights and critical decision-making with innovative solutions based on trusted, evidence-based content and advanced AI-enabled digital technologies.

We have supported the work of our research and healthcare communities for more than 140 years. Our 9,500 employees around the world, including 2,500 technologists, are dedicated to supporting researchers, librarians, academic leaders, funders, governments, R&D-intensive companies, doctors, nurses, future healthcare professionals and educators in their critical work. Our 2,900 scientific journals and iconic reference books include the foremost titles in their fields, including Cell Press, The Lancet and Gray’s Anatomy.

Together with the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window), we work in partnership with the communities we serve to advance inclusion and diversity in science, research and healthcare in developing countries and around the world.

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