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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Psychiatry | doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00777

DNA methylation in healthy older adults with a history of childhood adversity – Findings from the Women 40+ Healthy Aging Study

 Serena Fiacco1, 2, Elena S. Gardini1, 2, Laura Mernone1, Lea Schick1 and  Ulrike Ehlert1, 2*
  • 1Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2Dynamics of Healthy Aging, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Background: Adversity in early development seems to increase the risk of stress-related somatic disorders later in life. Physiologically, functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axes is often discussed as long-term mediators of risk. In particular, DNA methylation in the glucocorticoid receptor gene promoter (NR3C1) has been associated with type and strength of early life adversity and subsequent effects on HPA axis signaling in humans. Animal studies, moreover, suggest changes in DNA methylation in the estrogen receptor gene (ERα) upon early life adversity. We investigated the association of type and severity of childhood adversity with methylation in NR3C1 and ERα, and additionally considered associations between methylation and steroid hormone secretion.

Methods: The percentage of methylation within the NR3C1 promoter and the ERα CpG island shore was investigated using dried blood spot samples of 103 healthy women aged 40-73 years. Childhood adversity was examined with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Linear regression analyses were performed with methylation as dependent variable and the experience of emotional abuse and neglect, physical abuse and neglect, and sexual abuse (compared to non-experience) as independent variables. All analyses were controlled for age, BMI, and annual household income.

Results: Overall, over 70% of the sample reported having experienced any kind of abuse or neglect of at least low intensity. There were no significant associations between childhood adversity and methylation in NR3C1 (all p >.10). Participants reporting emotional neglect or abuse showed significantly higher methylation in the ERα gene than those who did not (p< .05). Moreover, participants reporting sexual abuse or physical abuse showed higher methylation in ERα than those who did not, with borderline significance (p < .10). Higher levels of adversity were associated with higher levels of ERα gene methylation.

Conclusion: In resilient women, early life adversity does not seem to result in NR3C1 hypermethylation in midlife and older age. This is the first study in humans to suggest that childhood adversity might, however, epigenetically modify the ERα CpG island shore. Further studies are needed to gain a better understanding of why some individuals remain healthy and others develop psychopathologies in the face of childhood adversity.

Keywords: Early life adversity, Healthy women, Methylation, NR3C1, ERα, cortisol, Estradiol

Received: 08 Jul 2019; Accepted: 27 Sep 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Fiacco, Gardini, Mernone, Schick and Ehlert. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Ulrike Ehlert, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Zürich, CH-8050, Zürich, Switzerland,