How your childhood might change your genes

27 October 2011

Changes in genes identified in middle-aged men may be the result of a childhood lived in poverty, according to new research.

Analysing the DNA of 40 men, aged 45 at time of sample collection and raised in households belonging to the top and bottom 20 per cent of the socioeconomic scale, scientists have uncovered patterns in gene activation that seem to relate to the wealth or poverty in which the men were raised.

Of the 20,000 sites of the genome they examined, researchers found differences in activation patterns at 1252 sites associated with socioeconomically poor households, compared to 545 sites associated with a wealthy upbringing. Differences between these two groups were found at almost a third of sites. This suggests that something in a background of poverty may cause a lasting response in which a gene is switched either on or off. These responses, while possibly useful in terms of survival at the time, may be linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other complex diseases in later life.

Epigenetic changes – the process by which genes are activated or silenced - have already been linked to psychotic diseases such as schizophrenia.

The researchers are now turning their attention to identifying when these changes occur in a new study of participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children for whom blood samples are available from birth to around the age of 20.