Genes and immune system shaped by childhood poverty, stress

October 18, 2012, University of British Columbia

(Medical Xpress)—A University of British Columbia and Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics (CMMT) study has revealed that childhood poverty, stress as an adult, and demographics such as age, sex and ethnicity, all leave an imprint on a person's genes. And, that this imprint could play a role in our immune response.

The study was published last week in a special volume of the that looks at how experiences beginning before birth and in the years after can affect the course of a person's life.

Known as epigenetics, or the study of changes in , this research 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.

A video of Kobor speaking about DNA methylation and his research

The research team discovered that childhood poverty, but not socioeconomic status as an adult, was correlated with the marks or methylation patterns left on genes.

"We found biological residue of early life poverty," said Michael Kobor, an associate professor of at UBC, whose CMMT lab at the Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI) led the research. "This was based on clear evidence that environmental influences correlate with epigenetic patterns."

The amount of stress hormones produced by adults was also linked with variations in . 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, who is a Mowafaghian Scholar at the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), 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.

Explore further: Parents' stress leaves lasting marks on children's genes

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JVK
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2012
"The concept that is extended is the epigenetic tweaking of immense gene networks in 'superorganisms' (Lockett, Kucharski, & Maleszka, 2012) that 'solve problems through the exchange and the selective cancellation and modification of signals (Bear, 2004, p. 330)'. It is now clearer how an environmental drive probably evolved from that of food ingestion in unicellular organisms to that of socialization in insects. It is also clear that, in mammals, food odors and pheromones cause changes in hormones such as LH, which has developmental affects on sexual behavior in nutrient-dependent, reproductively fit individuals across species of vertebrates."

Kohl, J.V. (2012) Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 2: 17338.
http://dx.doi.org...i0.17338

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