Early-life experience, epigenetics, and the developing brain

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015 Jan;40(1):141-53. doi: 10.1038/npp.2014.140. Epub 2014 Jun 11.


Development is a dynamic process that involves interplay between genes and the environment. In mammals, the quality of the postnatal environment is shaped by parent-offspring interactions that promote growth and survival and can lead to divergent developmental trajectories with implications for later-life neurobiological and behavioral characteristics. Emerging evidence suggests that epigenetic factors (ie, DNA methylation, posttranslational histone modifications, and small non-coding RNAs) may have a critical role in these parental care effects. Although this evidence is drawn primarily from rodent studies, there is increasing support for these effects in humans. Through these molecular mechanisms, variation in risk of psychopathology may emerge, particularly as a consequence of early-life neglect and abuse. Here we will highlight evidence of dynamic epigenetic changes in the developing brain in response to variation in the quality of postnatal parent-offspring interactions. The recruitment of epigenetic pathways for the biological embedding of early-life experience may also have transgenerational consequences and we will describe and contrast two routes through which this transmission can occur: experience dependent vs germline inheritance. Finally, we will speculate regarding the future directions of epigenetic research and how it can help us gain a better understanding of the developmental origins of psychiatric dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • DNA Methylation / physiology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Social Environment*