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Epigenetic Clues to the Biological Embedding of Early Life Adversity

  • Patrick O. McGowan
    Correspondence
    Address correspondence to Patrick O. McGowan, Ph.D., Department of Biological Sciences, Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, Canada M1C 1A4
    Affiliations
    Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, Canada
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      The concept of biological embedding has gained substantial traction as a framework for understanding the roots of complex multifactorial phenomena in health and disease. A body of research over several decades indicates that early life experiences have profound consequences for health in adulthood, including mental health, as a consequence of establishing long-term health gradients (
      • Hertzman C.
      • Boyce T.
      How experience gets under the skin to create gradients in developmental health.
      ). Early interventions have been proposed to have an enhanced impact on health trajectories in part because they act at a time of enhanced plasticity (
      • Hanson M.
      • Godfrey K.M.
      • Lillycrop K.A.
      • Burdge G.C.
      • Gluckman P.D.
      Developmental plasticity and developmental origins of non-communicable disease: theoretical considerations and epigenetic mechanisms.
      ). Early-life adversity in the form of physical and sexual abuse or severe neglect is well recognized to increase the risk of suicide (
      • Mann J.J.
      • Currier D.M.
      Stress, genetics and epigenetic effects on the neurobiology of suicidal behavior and depression.
      ). It has been challenging, however, to elucidate biologic mechanisms that underlie long-term changes in brain and behavior that are associated with the increased risk.
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