Holding Infants – Or Not – Can Leave Traces on Their Genes

Source: University of British Columbia.

Summary: According to a new research, the amount of closeness and comforting contact between infants and their caregivers can affect children at the molecular level, an effect detectable four years later.

A new study showed that children who are more distressed as infants and received less physical contact pointed the possibility that they were lagging biologically. The molecular profile of their cells was underdeveloped for their age. The simple act of touching, early in life, has strong-rooted and potentially lifelong consequences on genetic expression. This effect in infants is detectable four years later from their birth. Researchers from UBC and BC Children’s Hospital asked parents of 5-week-old babies to keep a note of their infants’ behavior – sleeping, fussing, crying or feeding and also the care-giving which involved bodily contact. The study findings were published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

At about 4 1/2 years old, the children DNA was sampled by swabbing the inside of their cheeks. The research team examined a biochemical modification – DNA methylation in which some parts of chromosome are tagged with small molecules that act as dimmer switches – help to control how active gene is, and thus affect the functioning of cells. Especially in childhood, the extent of DNA methylation and where it specifically occurs can be influenced by external conditions. These epigenetic patterns also change as we age in a predictable way.

The team found consistent methylation differences between high-contact and low-contact children at 5 specific sites of DNA. Two of these sites fall within genes – one plays a key role in the immune system and other is involved in metabolism. The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively less physical contact had an “epigenetic age” that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such an inconsistency has been linked to poor health in many of the recent studies.

Lead author Sarah Moore, a postdoctoral fellow said, “We plan on following up to see whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development”, “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”

More Information: Sarah R. Moore et al, Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans, Development and Psychopathology (2017). DOI: 10.1017/S0954579417001213


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