Nurses' care of young mothers leaves traces in babies' DNA

May 2, 2018, McGill University
A depiction of the double helical structure of DNA. Its four coding units (A, T, C, G) are color-coded in pink, orange, purple and yellow. Credit: NHGRI

Researchers have known for a couple of decades that early life adversity can affect the way that particular genes function through a process called epigenetics—a bit like a dimmer switch on a light, pushing gene activity up or down. What they haven't been able to show until now is that positive early life experiences can have a similar effect, and that these effects can be seen over thirty years later.

In a study, recently published in Translational Psychiatry, a McGill-led team of scientists have been able to demonstrate long-lasting but subtle effects, at a genetic level, on the offspring of young mothers who took part in a nurse visitation program for vulnerable first time moms. This is the longest-running study of its kind, and the first to look at how positive psychosocial interventions can leave an epigenetic trace.

Advice from nurses for mothers-at-risk

In 1977 young, pregnant, first-time mothers from low-income families in a town in upstate New York were assigned to one of two groups. One group of women was offered free assessments of child development and transportation to a clinic for their medical appointments. The other women could have up to two years of home visits from trained nurses from the Nurse Family Partnership program who shared practical information about child rearing and family planning. The number of visits varied from one woman to another, from as few as six visits to as many as 30, but the impact of these visits can be seen today.

There were 400 women enrolled in the initial study. Now, over 30 years later, close to half of their offspring took part in a follow-up study. Their numbers were fairly evenly divided between the offspring of women who had received visits from nurses (99 people) and those who had not (89 people). One part of the current study involved responding to an online questionnaire about diagnoses of illnesses ranging from major depression to substance abuse. Here, the researchers saw little difference between the offspring of the women who had received visits from nurses and those who had not. (Though because only half of the initial group took part in the follow-up study, the researchers suggest that it is possible that this was a self-selecting group who were more likely to have experienced abuse along with psychiatric disorders.)

A small but important step along the way

But it was when the researchers took blood samples to gain a picture of what was going on at a , that they saw a significant though subtle difference between the two groups.

"Initially we ran just a small subgroup of participants and we found evidence of an association between a psychosocial intervention that ended at the age of two and changes in DNA methylation, a modification to DNA that can change the way that certain genes are expressed," says Kieran O'Donnell, the lead author who is based at McGill University. "So, I held my breath waiting for the analysis on the full cohort, and then we saw that the results held."

DNA methylation is a process whereby groups of atoms (known as methyl groups) are added to DNA molecules to change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence itself. Though the field of epigenetics is still relatively young and it is difficult for researchers to say exactly what the implications are of these epigenetic modifications, they believe that with further work, this information will prove useful for precision medicine efforts for children and adolescents.

Michael Meaney, the senior author who is based at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre adds, "It's fascinating to see that interventions that started while a child was in the womb and stopped by age two can leave traces that last a lifetime. This research shows that early intervention programs have an effect. But more longitudinal studies of this kind will need to be done before we can see how this information will prove clinically useful in the treatment of child and adolescent mental health. For the time being, all we can say is that family intervention programs have left their mark, quite literally."

Explore further: Well-child visits are effective time to help moms, study shows

More information: Kieran J. O'Donnell et al. DNA methylome variation in a perinatal nurse-visitation program that reduces child maltreatment: a 27-year follow-up, Translational Psychiatry (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41398-017-0063-9

Related Stories

Well-child visits are effective time to help moms, study shows

March 15, 2018
In an effort to improve birth outcomes, well-child visits provide an opportune time to deliver basic screenings and health care interventions for new mothers between pregnancies, according to a new study led by UPMC.

Diabetes intervention works best at home

March 27, 2018
A public health research team at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis has taken one of the most effective diabetes intervention programs and made it more accessible by partnering with an existing home-visit ...

Brief education intervention boosts tetanus vaccination rates in rural India

March 6, 2018
Education of mothers on the benefits of tetanus vaccination increased immunization coverage in a randomized trial set in rural India, according to new research this week in PLOS Medicine by Timothy Powell-Jackson of the London ...

Foster care damages the health of mothers

November 2, 2017
Spending time in foster care can have serious consequences for the health and well-being of children. But what about their mothers?

Researcher finds nurse-family partnership reduces preventable mortality

July 7, 2014
Low-income mothers and their first-born children who received home visits from nurses were less likely to die from preventable causes during a two-decade period studied by a University of Colorado School of Medicine professor, ...

Recommended for you

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...

0 comments

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.