Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans

Dev Psychopathol. 2017 Dec;29(5):1517-1538. doi: 10.1017/S0954579417001213.


Animal models of early postnatal mother-infant interactions have highlighted the importance of tactile contact for biobehavioral outcomes via the modification of DNA methylation (DNAm). The role of normative variation in contact in early human development has yet to be explored. In an effort to translate the animal work on tactile contact to humans, we applied a naturalistic daily diary strategy to assess the link between maternal contact with infants and epigenetic signatures in children 4-5 years later, with respect to multiple levels of child-level factors, including genetic variation and infant distress. We first investigated DNAm at four candidate genes: the glucocorticoid receptor gene, nuclear receptor subfamily 3, group C, member 1 (NR3C1), μ-opioid receptor M1 (OPRM1) and oxytocin receptor (OXTR; related to the neurobiology of social bonds), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF; involved in postnatal plasticity). Although no candidate gene DNAm sites significantly associated with early postnatal contact, when we next examined DNAm across the genome, differentially methylated regions were identified between high and low contact groups. Using a different application of epigenomic information, we also quantified epigenetic age, and report that for infants who received low contact from caregivers, greater infant distress was associated with younger epigenetic age. These results suggested that early postnatal contact has lasting associations with child biology.

MeSH terms

  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / genetics
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / genetics
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics
  • Touch / physiology*


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • NR3C1 protein, human
  • OPRM1 protein, human
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • BDNF protein, human