Negative Childhood Experiences May Permanently Brand Your DNA

Wonder how many of us ever thought that negative childhood experiences may permanently brand your DNA? Or even just how many childhood experiences would even have any effect on our health long-term? This is a question that some Northwestern University scientists, where were guided by Thom McDade, PhD., were attempting to answer. As it turns out, there are particular negative experiences that can alter DNA permanently. The results from this study have been recently published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

DNA Alterations Could Affect People Late in Life

Researchers collected a mass of epigenetic and generic data from approximate 500 people who lived in the Philippines. McDade and his associates conclude that they obtained a “lifetime of information,” as it was stated in their final report. This was some previous studies and research which concluded that mistreatments which occurred during childhood could very well result in chronic inflammation well into adulthood. But McDade’s study took this even one step beyond that, which was to identify actual epigenetic actuators behind it.

What they discovered was that when a person grows up in very stressful situations, it can lead to a low-level, chronic inflammation within the body. These conditions have been linked to a number of various diseases which are associated with aging, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes – conditions that are among the world’s biggest killers. No doubt that a negative experience during childhood makes chronic inflammation much more likely to occur in adulthood.

Finding the DNA Process that Could Forecast Future Health

Each set of DNA is merely a set of detailed instructions on how each of us is to be constructed and put together. But it is not necessarily set in stone and never to be changed again. In fact, we have learned that it actually changes often, using a process referred to as epigenetics. This system is considered to be “above” standard genetics, which serves to bookmark genes for suppression or expression, dependent on the environmental circumstances.

The methylation process is one by which methyl bookmarks or tags are marked on genes which activate them. What scientists discovered is that epigenetic actuators can really cause long-term inflammation that can lead to higher risk conditions the later stages of life. McDade and his colleagues wrote, “We provide evidence that nutritional, microbial, and psychosocial exposures in infancy and childhood predict adult levels of DNA methylation…in genes that regulate inflammation.”

In 1983, this amazing study started with a population of 3,000 pregnant Filipinas that came from the Cebu province of the Philippines. This group was comprised of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and influences. Some of them came from urban areas, and others lived in rural areas. Starting from there, scientists collected data periodically from approximately 500 of the children from these women over the span of their life. This was to determine whether or not the environment that each child was exposed to had led to any epigenetic changes within their DNA structures. Scientists also examined the environments and exposures they were in while they grew up.

This research team went on to identify 114 target genes from 10 different sites. They found that in nine genes, epigenetic methylation “was significantly predicted by the following variables: household socioeconomic status in childhood, extended absence of a parent in childhood, exposure to animal feces in infancy, birth in the dry season, or duration of exclusive breastfeeding.” 

Blood samples were gathered from these children during the ages of 20-22. These samples were analyzed for inflammatory proteins along with DNA methylation patterns. Three of these identified target sites were flagged as biomarkers of inflammation. Each one of them boosted the inflammatory response, and one site projected lower inflammation.

In conclusion, if we have certain genes that possess negative traits, this is not necessarily a death sentence. However, childhood experiences that are very negative such as poverty, a one parent household, along others could quite potentially increase a person’s risk of disease. McDade stated from the study, “We could have genes in our bodies that might lead to some bad outcomes or adverse health outcomes, but if those genes are silent, if they’re turned off due to epigenetic processes, that can be a good thing.” However, the bad news from all this is that after a gene has methylated, it will remain so, permanently.

This is not a great conclusion when you consider that negative childhood experiences may permanently brand your DNA.