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Adult Mental Health Especially Vulnerable to Early Childhood Events: An MGH study suggests that hardships experienced early in life may lead to physical changes that affect future mental health.

Events and circumstances that you may not even remember may have set you on a course toward mental health challenges you're facing now as an adult. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers found that experiences such as poverty and family instability may alter a person's gene expression profile--the measurement of your genes' activity.

These biological changes can lead to changes in someone's emotional health over time, according to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The researchers suggest that events that occurred before the age of 3 can have an even more powerful effect than some recent traumatic events.

"One of the major unanswered questions in child psychiatry has been 'How do the stressors children experience in the world make them more vulnerable to mental health problems in the future?"' says Erin Dunn, ScD, with the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine, corresponding author of the report. "These findings suggest that the first three years of life may be an especially important period for shaping biological processes that ultimately give rise to mental health conditions. If these results are replicated, they imply that prioritizing policies and interventions to children who experienced adversity during those years may help reduce the long-term risk for problems like depression."

Trauma and DNA Function

The study tested the hypothesis that there are certain periods in life in which adversity is associated with even greater changes in DNA methylation, a process that can change the function of a gene and its expression.

The researchers used data from an ongoing study of families in the U.K. The researchers studied the effects of a child's repeated experience of stressor including: abuse by a parent or caregiver; abuse by anyone; a mother's mental illness; living in a single-adult household; family instability; family financial stress; neighborhood disadvantage; or poverty.

"Our results need to be replicated by other investigators," Dr. Dunn explains. "Only then will we be able to really understand the links between childhood adversity, DNA methylation and the risk of mental health problems, and that understanding could guide us to better ways of preventing those problems from developing." MMM

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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Jul 25, 2019
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