Exposure to adverse rearing environments including institutional deprivation and severe childhood abuse is associated with an increased risk for mental and physical health problems across the lifespan. Although the mechanisms mediating these effects are not known, recent work in rodent models suggests that epigenetic processes may be involved. We studied the impact of severe early-life adversity on epigenetic variation in a sample of adolescents adopted from the severely depriving orphanages of the Romanian communist era in the 1980s. We quantified buccal cell DNA methylation at ~400 000 sites across the genome in Romanian adoptees exposed to either extended (6–43 months; n=16) or limited duration (<6 months; n=17) of severe early-life deprivation, in addition to a matched sample of UK adoptees (n=16) not exposed to severe deprivation. Although no probe-wise differences remained significant after controlling for the number of probes tested, we identified an exposure-associated differentially methylated region (DMR) spanning nine sequential CpG sites in the promoter-regulatory region of the cytochrome P450 2E1 gene (CYP2E1) on chromosome 10 (corrected P=2.98 × 10−5). Elevated DNA methylation across this region was also associated with deprivation-related clinical markers of impaired social cognition. Our data suggest that environmental insults of sufficient biological impact during early development are associated with long-lasting epigenetic changes, potentially reflecting a biological mechanism linking the effects of early-life adversity to cognitive and neurobiological phenotypes.
- dna methylation
- natural experiment