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Epigenetic Vestiges of Early Developmental Adversity: Childhood Stress Exposure and DNA Methylation in Adolescence


  • This work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health Grants R01-MH044340, P50-MH069315, P50-MH084051, and R24-MH081797 and by research support to WTB, CH, and MSK from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. MSK is a Scholar of the Mowafaghian Foundation through the Human Early Learning Partnership of the University of British Columbia. WTB holds the Sunny Hill Health Centre-BC Leadership Chair in Child Development. The authors wish to express their appreciation to the participating families who generously committed their time to the project and to Dr. Hunter Fraser (Stanford University) who provided important statistical assistance in the interpretation of data.

concerning this article should be addressed to Marilyn J. Essex, Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, 6001 Research Park Boulevard, Madison, WI 53719. Electronic mail may be sent to


Fifteen-year-old adolescents (N = 109) in a longitudinal study of child development were recruited to examine differences in DNA methylation in relation to parent reports of adversity during the adolescents’ infancy and preschool periods. Microarray technology applied to 28,000 cytosine–guanine dinucleotide sites within DNA derived from buccal epithelial cells showed differential methylation among adolescents whose parents reported high levels of stress during their children’s early lives. Maternal stressors in infancy and paternal stressors in the preschool years were most strongly predictive of differential methylation, and the patterning of such epigenetic marks varied by children’s gender. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first report of prospective associations between adversities in early childhood and the epigenetic conformation of adolescents’ genomic DNA.