Adverse Childhood Experiences Run Deep: Toxic Early Life Stress, Telomeres, and Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number, the Biological Markers of Cumulative Stress

Bioessays. 2018 Sep;40(9):e1800077. doi: 10.1002/bies.201800077. Epub 2018 Aug 1.


This manuscript reviews recent evidence supporting the utility of telomeres and mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNAcn) in detecting the biological impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and outlines mechanisms that may mediate the connection between early stress and poor physical and mental health. Critical to interrupting the health sequelae of ACEs such as abuse, neglect, and neighborhood disorder, is the discovery of biomarkers of risk and resilience. The molecular markers of chronic stress exposure, telomere length and mtDNAcn, represent critical biological links between ACEs and poor health outcomes. We examine how telomeres and mtDNAcn may exacerbate health disparities and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Finally, we explore how these molecular markers of early stress exposure may help define the role of resilience and develop effective interventions to moderate ACE health risk impact.

Keywords: adverse childhood experiences; adversity; early life stress; mitochondria; mitochondrial DNA copy number; telomere; toxic stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences / methods
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism*
  • DNA Copy Number Variations / genetics*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*
  • Telomere / genetics*


  • Biomarkers
  • DNA, Mitochondrial