A sobering new study suggests that childhood poverty, stress as an adult, and demographics all leave an imprint on a person’s genes. And this imprint could play a role in immune response.
Canadian researchers looked at how experiences beginning before birth and in the years after can affect an individual’s health and the course of a person’s life.
The study is published in a special volume of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers focused on how the environment can influence how genes are expressed. Known as epigenetics, the study examined a process called DNA methylation where a chemical molecule is added to DNA and acts like a dimmer on a light bulb switch, turning genes on or off or setting them somewhere in between.
Research has shown that a person’s life experiences play a role in shaping DNA methylation patterns.
Investigators discovered that childhood poverty, but not socioeconomic status as an adult, was associated with genetic changes.
“We found biological residue of early life poverty,” said Dr. Michael Kobor, an associate professor of medical genetics who led the research. “This was based on clear evidence that environmental influences correlate with epigenetic patterns.”
Investigators know that the amount of stress hormones produced by adults was also linked with variations in DNA methylation.
Like the chicken and the egg, Kobor says it is unknown whether increased stress as an adult could leave marks on DNA or whether the marks may play a role in the amount of stress hormones released.
Kobor and his colleagues also found that methylation patterns were predictive of future immune responses, suggesting that early life experiences could play a role in our response to illness later in life.
Source: University of British Columbia