Epigenetic Marks Affect Children’s Brain Development

Methylation of the HES1 gene in the womb can influence a child’s later cognitive development, scientists say.

AsianScientist (May 5, 2015) – Although it is now widely recognized that a poor start to life has long-term effects on a child’s later ability to learn, the mechanisms by which the environment in early life affects later life chances are poorly understood.

Research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology provides new evidence that so-called ‘epigenetic processes’ influence brain development to have an important influence on a child’s later ability to learn and their cognitive performance. The study was led by University of Southampton researchers with teams from New Zealand and Singapore.

Epigenetic marks on our DNA account for how all cells in the body have the same DNA sequence, inherited from our parents, but nonetheless there are hundreds of different cell types. The body uses epigenetics as its principal control system, to increase or decrease the expression of our genes and epigenetic processes are known to be important in memory and other aspects of brain function.

The new research used umbilical cord tissue collected at birth and identified epigenetic marks in a key brain development gene called HES1 that were linked to the child’s ability to learn and their cognitive performance at ages four and seven years.

The findings in two groups of children in Southampton, UK, were accompanied by additional findings in children from Singapore that HES1 epigenetic marks at birth were associated with aspects of socially disruptive behavior that have previously been linked with a reduced school performance.

“Alongside the findings in different groups of children in the UK and Singapore, we also found evidence for an effect of the epigenetic marks on the function of the HES1 gene in laboratory studies. Together, the findings provide substantial support for a role for epigenetics in mediating the long-term consequences of the early life environment on brain development and later cognitive performance,” explained Professor Karen Lillycrop and Dr. Paula Costello, who led the research.

Dr. Anne Rifkin-Graboi, head of the Neurodevelopment Research Centre at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Clinical Sciences and a key investigator in the Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) study included in the research, added on significance of the research:

“This is the first time that epigenetic marks at birth have been linked with substantial effects on a child’s ability to learn,” she said.

“The effects on later cognitive function and behavior in two culturally diverse populations are particularly noteworthy as they relate to healthy children within the normal range of size at birth. The research marks an important step forward in determining biological mechanisms through which brain development is susceptible to environmental exposures.”

The article can be found at: Lillycrop et al. (2015) Association Between Perinatal Methylation Of The Neuronal Differentiation Regulator HES1 And Later Childhood Neurocognitive Function And Behavior.


Source: A*STAR; Photo: Caroline/Flickr/CC.
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