Can strong parental bond protect infants down to their DNA?

by Keith Brannon
Does a strong parental bond in a child’s first year create a “biological buffer” in children that protects them against toxic stress? That is the subject of an ongoing study by Tulane researchers. Credit: Daymon Gardner

Tulane University psychiatrist Dr. Stacy Drury received $2.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to test a provocative new theory: how well children bond with a parent in the first year of life leaves lasting genetic protection, potentially shielding them from disease risks well into adulthood.

Drury, a geneticist, is a pioneer in new research exploring the biological impacts of early adversity on children. She is the first scientist to show that in infancy can biologically age a child by shortening the tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres. These caps keep chromosomes from shrinking when cells replicate. Shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for heart disease, cognitive decline, diabetes and mental illness in adults.

"Telomeres are clearly a marker of the aging process, but they are increasingly being linked to stress," says Drury, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University School of Medicine. 

"What this suggests is that we have a marker that is in a cell that is sort of tracking the lasting impact of these negative early life experiences."

She and Tulane scientists are recruiting 500 pregnant women to see if a responsive and sensitive parental bond can create a "biological buffer" in children that protects against telomere shortening and toxic stress.

The Tulane Infant Development Study will be the first to document what happens physiologically before and after infants develop "attachment," the all-important bond with mothers or primary caregivers. More than 140 expectant mothers are enrolled. Researchers are working with area clinics and social service agencies to recruit participants during the next five years.

"If I just need to really strengthen that (parenting) relationship for the first six months of life," Drury says, "and that is going to improve health outcomes for decades—that's an easy sell, right?"

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Family violence leaves genetic imprint on children

Jun 20, 2014

A new Tulane University School of Medicine study finds that the more fractured families are by domestic violence or trauma, the more likely that children will bear the scars down to their DNA.

Living in disordered neighborhoods gets under the skin

Nov 13, 2013

Living in a violence-plagued neighborhood may cause such great stress that a person's gene expression may be altered. These are the findings of Katherine Theall, Stacy Drury and an interdisciplinary team of Tulane University ...

Deprivation and neglect found to age children's chromosomes

May 17, 2011

Studies in institutionalized Romanian children have found that the length of time spent in conditions of social deprivation and neglect correlates with lower IQ and behavioral problems. A new study, led by researchers at ...

Telomeres and social disadvantage

Apr 07, 2014

Genes amplify the stress of harsh environments for some children, and magnify the advantage of supportive environments for other children, according to a study that's one of the first to document how genes ...

Recommended for you

Toddlers copy their peers to fit in, but apes don't

1 hour ago

From the playground to the board room, people often follow, or conform, to the behavior of those around them as a way of fitting in. New research shows that this behavioral conformity appears early in human ...

Sadness lasts longer than other emotions

2 hours ago

Why is it that you can feel sad up to 240 times longer than you do feeling ashamed, surprised, irritated or even bored? It's because sadness often goes hand in hand with events of greater impact such as death ...

Can parents make their kids smarter?

2 hours ago

Reading bedtime stories, engaging in conversation and eating nightly dinners together are all positive ways in which parents interact with their children, but according to new research, none of these actions ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JVK
not rated yet Jul 23, 2014
2.4 million?

Why not look at the extant literature on the epigenetic effects of parental feeding on receptor-mediated cell type differentiation and morphological and behavioral phenotypes associated with nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled amino acid substitutions and ecological speciation?

Estrogen receptor α polymorphism in a species with alternative behavioral phenotypes
http://www.pnas.o...abstract

Conserved molecular mechanisms link cell type differentiation in birds to nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled mother-infant bonding in mammals in a detailed model of biologically-based cause and effect. In all vertebrates "Feedback loops link odor and pheromone signaling with reproduction" via epigenetic effects on gonadotropin releasing hormone. http://www.ncbi.n...16290036

http://www.ncbi.n...24693353 "In mammals, food odors and pheromones cause changes in hormones such as LH..." and bonding.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.