Annual Research Review: Epigenetic mechanisms and environmental shaping of the brain during sensitive periods of development

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2011 Apr;52(4):398-408. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02282.x.


Experiences during early development profoundly affect development of the central nervous system (CNS) to impart either risk for or resilience to later psychopathology. Work in the developmental neuroscience field is providing compelling data that epigenetic marking of the genome may underlie aspects of this process. Experiments in rodents continue to show that experiences during sensitive periods of development influence DNA methylation patterns of several genes. These experience-induced DNA methylation patterns represent stable epigenetic modifications that alter gene transcription throughout the lifespan and promote specific behavioral outcomes. We discuss the relevance of these findings to humans, and also briefly discuss these findings in the broader contexts of cognition and psychiatric disorder. We conclude by discussing the implications of these observations for future research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / genetics
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation / genetics
  • Histones / genetics
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Life Change Events
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mice
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / genetics*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Rats
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Social Environment*
  • Transcription, Genetic / genetics


  • Histones