From early stress to 12-month development in very preterm infants: Preliminary findings on epigenetic mechanisms and brain growth

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Very preterm (VPT) infants admitted to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) are at risk for altered brain growth and less-than-optimal socio-emotional development. Recent research suggests that early NICU-related stress contributes to socio-emotional impairments in VPT infants at 3 months through epigenetic regulation (i.e., DNA methylation) of the serotonin transporter gene (SLC6A4). In the present longitudinal study we assessed: (a) the effects of NICU-related stress and SLC6A4 methylation variations from birth to discharge on brain development at term equivalent age (TEA); (b) the association between brain volume at TEA and socio-emotional development (i.e., Personal-Social scale of Griffith Mental Development Scales, GMDS) at 12 months corrected age (CA). Twenty-four infants had complete data at 12-month-age. SLC6A4 methylation was measured at a specific CpG previously associated with NICU-related stress and socio-emotional stress. Findings confirmed that higher NICU-related stress associated with greater increase of SLC6A4 methylation at NICU discharge. Moreover, higher SLC6A4 discharge methylation was associated with reduced anterior temporal lobe (ATL) volume at TEA, which in turn was significantly associated with less-than-optimal GMDS Personal-Social scale score at 12 months CA. The reduced ATL volume at TEA mediated the pathway linking stress-related increase in SLC6A4 methylation at NICU discharge and socio-emotional development at 12 months CA. These findings suggest that early adversity-related epigenetic changes might contribute to the long-lasting programming of socio-emotional development in VPT infants through epigenetic regulation and structural modifications of the developing brain.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0190602
JournalPLoS One
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2018


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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