Exposure to different early-life stress experiences results in differentially altered DNA methylation in the brain and immune system

Clarissa Catale, Silvia Bussone, Luisa Lo Iacono, Maria Teresa Viscomi, Daniela Palacios, Alfonso Troisi, Valeria Carola

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The existence of a proportional relationship between the number of early-life stress (ELS) events experienced and the impoverishment of child mental health has been hypothesized. However, different types of ELS experiences may be associated with different neuro-psycho-biological impacts, due to differences in the intrinsic nature of the stress. DNA methylation is one of the molecular mechanisms that have been implicated in the “translation” of ELS exposure into neurobiological and behavioral abnormalities during adulthood. Here, we investigated whether different ELS experiences resulted in differential impacts on global DNA methylation levels in the brain and blood samples from mice and humans. ELS exposure in mice resulted in observable changes in adulthood, with exposure to social isolation inducing more dramatic alterations in global DNA methylation levels in several brain structures compared with exposure to a social threatening environment. Moreover, these two types of stress resulted in differential impacts on the epigenetic programming of different brain regions and cellular populations, namely microglia. In a pilot clinical study, blood global DNA methylation levels and exposure to childhood neglect or abuse were investigated in patients presenting with major depressive disorder or substance use disorder. A significant effect of the mental health diagnosis on global methylation levels was observed, but no effect of either childhood abuse or neglect was detected. These findings demonstrate that different types of ELS have differential impacts on epigenetic programming, through DNA methylation in specific brain regions, and that these differential impacts are associated with the different behavioral outcomes observed after ELS experiences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100249
JournalNeurobiology of Stress
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • Blood
  • Brain
  • Childhood maltreatment
  • Clinical psychology
  • Early-life stress
  • Epigenetics
  • Global DNA methylation
  • Major depression
  • Substance use disorder

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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