Association between the timing of childhood adversity and epigenetic patterns across childhood and adolescence: findings from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) prospective cohort

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Journal Article

Childhood adversity is a potent determinant of health across development and is associated with altered DNA methylation signatures, which might be more common in children exposed during sensitive periods in development. However, it remains unclear whether adversity has persistent epigenetic associations across childhood and adolescence. We aimed to examine the relationship between time-varying adversity (defined through sensitive period, accumulation of risk, and recency life course hypotheses) and genome-wide DNA methylation, measured three times from birth to adolescence, using data from a prospective, longitudinal cohort study.

We first investigated the relationship between the timing of exposure to childhood adversity between birth and 11 years and blood DNA methylation at age 15 years in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) prospective cohort study. Our analytic sample included ALSPAC participants with DNA methylation data and complete childhood adversity data between birth and 11 years. We analysed seven types of adversity (caregiver physical or emotional abuse, sexual or physical abuse [by anyone], maternal psychopathology, one-adult households, family instability, financial hardship, and neighbourhood disadvantage) reported by mothers five to eight times between birth and 11 years. We used the structured life course modelling approach (SLCMA) to identify time-varying associations between childhood adversity and adolescent DNA methylation. Top loci were identified using an R2 threshold of 0·035 (ie, ≥3·5% of DNA methylation variance explained by adversity). We attempted to replicate these associations using data from the Raine Study and Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). We also assessed the persistence of adversity–DNA methylation associations we previously identified from age 7 blood DNA methylation into adolescence and the influence of adversity on DNA methylation trajectories from ages 0–15 years.

Of 13 988 children in the ALSPAC cohort, 609–665 children (311–337 [50–51%] boys and 298–332 [49–50%] girls) had complete data available for at least one of the seven childhood adversities and DNA methylation at 15 years. Exposure to adversity was associated with differences in DNA methylation at 15 years for 41 loci (R2 ≥0·035). Sensitive periods were the most often selected life course hypothesis by the SLCMA. 20 (49%) of 41 loci were associated with adversities occurring between age 3 and 5 years. Exposure to one-adult households was associated with differences in DNA methylation at 20 [49%] of 41 loci, exposure to financial hardship was associated with changes at nine (22%) loci, and physical or sexual abuse was associated with changes at four (10%) loci. We replicated the direction of associations for 18 (90%) of 20 loci associated with exposure to one-adult household using adolescent blood DNA methylation from the Raine Study and 18 (64%) of 28 loci using saliva DNA methylation from the FFCWS. The directions of effects for 11 one-adult household loci were replicated in both cohorts. Differences in DNA methylation at 15 years were not present at 7 years and differences identified at 7 years were no longer apparent by 15 years. We also identified six distinct DNA methylation trajectories from these patterns of stability and persistence.

These findings highlight the time-varying effect of childhood adversity on DNA methylation profiles across development, which might link exposure to adversity to potential adverse health outcomes in children and adolescents. If replicated, these epigenetic signatures could ultimately serve as biological indicators or early warning signs of initiated disease processes, helping identify people at greater risk for the adverse health consequences of childhood adversity.

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health