Variation in DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene predicts children's resilience to prenatal stress

Dev Psychopathol. 2017 Dec;29(5):1663-1674. doi: 10.1017/S0954579417001316.


Emerging research in epigenetics has shown that there is variability in how environmental exposures "get under the skin" through mechanisms like DNA methylation to influence gene expression that may lead to differential adaptations to stress. This is the first study to examine prospectively the relationship between DNA methylation at birth and resilience to prenatal environmental stressors in several domains (conduct, hyperactivity, emotional problems, and global symptomatology) in middle childhood. We focused on DNA methylation in the vicinity of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene as it has been previously associated with impairments in social-cognitive processes that may underlie a wide range of childhood psychopathology. Participants were 91 youth exposed to pre- and postnatal adversity with established conduct problem trajectories drawn from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Consistent with our hypothesis, OXTR DNA methylation was predictive of resilience in the conduct problems domain in middle childhood. DNA methylation profiles did not predict resilience in domains of emotional, hyperactivity, and global symptomatology, suggesting a potential role for OXTR in the development of conduct problems in particular. However, individuals who were resilient to conduct problems were also broadly resilient across multiple domains. Therefore, future research should elucidate the biological pathways between OXTR DNA methylation and gene expression and its relation to impairments in social behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / genetics*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics*
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology


  • Receptors, Oxytocin