Maternal caregiving and DNA methylation in human infants and children: Systematic review

Livio Provenzi, Maddalena Brambilla, Giunia Scotto di Minico, Rosario Montirosso, Renato Borgatti

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The integration of behavioral epigenetics' principles (eg, DNA methylation) into the study of human infants' development has mainly focused on the effects of early adverse exposures, paying less attention to protective caregiving experiences. The present review focused on DNA methylation linked to variations in maternal behavior in human infants and children. Literature search occurred on three databases (PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science) and 11 records were selected. Key variables were abstracted from each article including: sample size and characteristics, time and type of maternal caregiving behavior exposure, time and locus of methylation biomarker, presence/absence, time and type of adverse exposure. Six out of eleven records documented the predictive effect of maternal caregiving on DNA methylation, whereas the remaining five reported on the role of maternal behavior as an influencing factor of the adversity-to-methylation link. Consistent with evidence from the animal model, the quality of maternal caregiving in humans (a) might be associated with variations in DNA methylation status of specific genes involved in socio-emotional development and (b) might partially buffer the association between early adversities and epigenetic variations in infants and children. Current evidence suggests that the quality of maternal caregiving can contribute to behavioral development trajectories of human infants and children at least partially through epigenetic regulation. Open questions and methodological aspects are discussed to guide future human developmental research in behavioral epigenetics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e12616
Number of pages11
JournalGenes, Brain and Behavior
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Oct 17 2019


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