The epigenetics of social adversity in early life: implications for mental health outcomes

Neurobiol Dis. 2010 Jul;39(1):66-72. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2009.12.026. Epub 2010 Jan 4.


An organism's behavioral and physiological and social milieu influence and are influenced by the epigenome, which is composed predominantly of chromatin and the covalent modification of DNA by methylation. Epigenetic patterns are sculpted during development to shape the diversity of gene expression programs in the organism. In contrast to the genetic sequence, which is determined by inheritance and is virtually identical in all tissues, the epigenetic pattern varies from cell type to cell type and is potentially dynamic throughout life. It is postulated here that different environmental exposures, including early parental care, could impact epigenetic patterns, with important implications for mental health in humans. Because epigenetic programming defines the state of expression of genes, epigenetic differences could have the same consequences as genetic polymorphisms. Yet in contrast to genetic sequence differences, epigenetic alterations are potentially reversible. This review will discuss basic epigenetic mechanisms and how epigenetic processes early in life might play a role in defining inter-individual trajectories of human behavior. In this regard, we will examine evidence for the possibility that epigenetic mechanisms can contribute to later-onset neurological dysfunction and disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Social Change*
  • Social Isolation / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*