Background: Childhood trauma is associated with increased vulnerability to mental and somatic disorders later in life. Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation are one potential mechanism through which such long-lasting impairments/consequences can be explained. The aim of the present study was to investigate whether childhood trauma is associated with long-term DNA methylation alterations in old age.
Methods: We assessed genome-wide DNA methylation profiles in a cohort of former indentured child laborers ("Verdingkinder") who suffered severe childhood adversities (N = 30; M age = 75.9 years), and compared them to control group with similar demographic characteristics (N = 15, M age = 72.8 years). DNA was isolated from epithelial buccal cells and hybridized to the Illumina Infinium 450 k DNA methylation array, which provides coverage of 485,000 methylation sites.
Results: After accounting for batch effects, age, gender and multiple testing, 71 differentially methylated CpG positions were identified between the two groups. They were annotated among others to genes involved in neuronal projections and neuronal development. Some of the identified genes with differential methylation (DLG associated protein 2, mechanistic target of rapamycin) have previously been associated with traumatic stress.
Conclusions: The results indicate specific epigenetic alterations in elderly individuals who were subjected to childhood adversities. Psychiatric and somatic comorbidities as well as differences in buccal epithelial cells proportion may contribute to the observed epigenetic differences.