1 10. Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long-Term Development working paper 10. members contributing members Jack P. Shonkoff, , Chair susan nall bales Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and President, FrameWorks Institute Development, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education; Professor of Pediatrics, philip a. fisher, Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston; Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon Director, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University Senior Research Scientist, Oregon Social Learning Center & Center for Research to Practice Pat Levitt, , Science Director Director, Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute; Provost Professor of william greenough, Neuroscience, Psychiatry & Pharmacy; Chair, Department of Swanlund Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Cell and Cell and Neurobiology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Developmental Biology; Director, Center for Advanced Study Southern California at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign W.
2 Thomas Boyce, eric knudsen, Sunny Hill Health Centre/BC Leadership Chair in Child Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor of Neurobiology, Development; Professor, Graduate Studies and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine University of British Columbia, Vancouver Deborah phillips, Judy Cameron, Professor of Psychology and Associated Faculty, Public Policy Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh Institute; Co-Director, Research Center on Children in the , Georgetown University Greg J. Duncan, Distinguished Professor, Department of Education, arthur J. rolnick, University of California, Irvine Senior Vice President and Director of Research, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Nathan A. Fox, Distinguished University Professor; Director, Child Development Laboratory, University of Maryland College Park partners Megan Gunnar, the frameworks institute Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University the national governors association center for best practices Professor, Institute of Child Development, University the national conference of state legislatures of Minnesota Linda C.
3 Mayes, Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and sponsors Psychology, Yale Child Study Center; the birth to five policy alliance Special Advisor to the Dean, Yale School of Medicine the buffett Early childhood fund Palix foundation Bruce S. McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor; Head, Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, The Rockefeller University Charles A. Nelson III, Richard David Scott Chair in Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research, Children's Hospital Boston; Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School Ross Thompson, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis About the Authors The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, housed at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is a multi- disciplinary collaboration designed to bring the science of Early childhood and Early brain development to bear on public decision- making. Established in 2003, the Council is committed to an evidence-based approach to building broad-based public will that transcends political partisanship and recognizes the complementary responsibilities of family, community, workplace, and government to promote the well-being of all young children.
4 For more information, go to Please note: The content of this paper is the sole responsibility of the Council and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the funders or partners. Suggested citation: National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long-Term Development: Working Paper No. 10. May 2010, National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University first printing: May 2010. The Issue new scientific research shows that environmental influences can actually Affect whether and how genes are expressed. Thus, the old ideas that genes are set in stone or that they alone determine development have been disproven. In fact, scientists have discovered that Early ex- periences can determine how genes are turned on and off and even whether some are expressed at ,2,3 Therefore, the Experiences children have Early in life and the environments in which they have them shape their developing brain architecture and strongly Affect whether they grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.
5 This growing scientific evidence supports the need for society to re-examine the way it thinks about the circumstances and Experiences to which young children are exposed. The approximately 23,000 genes that children evidence shows that experience-driven, chemi- inherit from their parents form what is called the cal modifications of these latter genes appear structural genome. Scientists liken the struc- to play particularly key roles in brain and be- tural genome to the hardware of a computer havioral development. This new knowledge both determine the boundaries of what's possi- has motivated scientists to look more closely ble, but neither works without an operating sys- at the factors that shape the epigenome and to tem to tell it what to do. In the genome, that op- study whether interventions can reverse these erating system is called the Like the modifications when negative changes occur. software in an operating system, the epigenome Nutritional status, exposure to toxins and determines which functions the genetic hard- drugs, and the Experiences of interacting with ware does and does not This system varied environments can all modify an in- is built over time as positive Experiences , such as dividual's Epigenetic instruc- exposure to rich learning opportunities, or neg- tions that change how and when certain genes ative influences, such as environmental toxins are turned on or off can cause temporary or or stressful life circumstances, leave a chemical signature on the genes.
6 These signatures can Like the software in a computer's operating system, be temporary or permanent, and both types af- fect how easily the genes are switched on or off. the epigenome determines which functions the For example, even though identical twins have the same structural genomes, their different ex- genetic hardware does and does not perform. periences result in different These differing Experiences leave signatures on the epigenome that cause some genes to be expressed enduring health problems. Moreover, research differently. This explains why genetically identi- in both animals and humans shows that some cal twins, though similar in many ways, can exhib- epigenetic changes that occur in the fetus dur- it different behaviors, skills, health, and achieve- ing pregnancy can be passed on to later genera- ment in both school and, later, in the workplace. tions, affecting the health and welfare of chil- The field of epigenetics is relatively new dren, grandchildren, and their ,11,12.
7 And at the cutting-edge of the biological sci- For example, turning on genes that increase cell ences. To date, scientists have found that growth, while at the same time switching off temporary epigenetic chemical modifications genes that suppress cell growth, has been shown control when and where most of our genes are to cause ,14 Repetitive, highly stress- turned on and off. This, however, is not the en- ful Experiences can cause epigenetic changes tire story. Certain Experiences can also cause that damage the systems that manage one's re- enduring epigenetic modifications in hun- sponse to adversity later in ,3,15 On the other dreds of genes that have already been hand, supportive environments and rich learn- identified, and the list is ,8 Increasing ing Experiences generate positive epigenetic Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long-Term Development 1. National scientific council on the developing child signatures that activate genetic In Policymakers can use this knowledge to this second case, the stimulation that occurs inform decisions about the allocation of re- in the brain through active use of learning and sources for interventions that Affect the life memory circuits can result in epigenetic chang- circumstances of young children knowing es that establish a foundation for more effective that effective interventions can literally al- learning capacities in the ,18 ter how children's genes work and, thereby, As we get older, new Experiences can contin- have long-lasting effects on their mental and ue to change our epigenome.
8 However, science physical health, learning, and behavior. In tells us that the chemical signatures imprinted this respect, the epigenome is the crucial link on our genes during fetal and infant develop- between the external environments that shape ment can have significant influences on brain our Experiences and the genes that guide our architecture that last a lifetime. Stated sim- development. ply, the discovery of the epigenome provides an explanation, at the molecular level, for why and how Early positive and negative Experiences can have lifelong ,3,19,20. What Science Tells Us over the past 50 years, extensive research critical periods of modification, while other genes has demonstrated that the healthy develop- are open to alterations throughout ,3,22,23,24,25. ment of all organs, including the brain, depends Epigenetic modification typically occurs in on how much and when certain genes are ex- cells that comprise organ systems, thereby influ- pressed. When scientists say that genes are ex- encing how these structures develop and func- pressed, they are referring to whether they are tion.
9 Experiences that change the epigenome turned on or off essentially whether and when Early in life, when the specialized cells of organs genes are activated to do certain tasks. Research such as the brain, heart, or kidneys are first de- has shown that there are many non-inherited veloping, can have a powerful impact on physi- environmental factors and Experiences that cal and mental health for a We are have the power to chemically mark genes and also learning from new scientific discoveries in control their functions. These influences create both animals and humans that environmental a new genetic landscape, which scientists call factors, such as certain drugs or the nutritional the epigenome. Some of these Experiences lead status of the mother, have the potential to cause to chemical modifications that change the ex- epigenetic changes to genes in egg or sperm cells pression of genes temporarily, while increasing in the fetus. When such changes occur, this new numbers have been discovered that leave chemi- chemical signature of the DNA is enduring and cal signatures that result in an enduring change can be inherited by future ,28,29.
10 In gene Expression . The brain is particularly responsive to experi- Early prenatal or postnatal Experiences and ex- ences and environments during Early develop- posures influence long-term outcomes by chemi- ment, which influences how well or poorly its cally altering the structure of genes. Known as architecture matures and functions. We know epigenetic modification (from the Greek root from extensive research that the physiological epi, meaning upon or over), these chemical sig- activity created by experience is powerful in natures are written on top of the gene without shaping brain architecture and actually changes actually altering the genetic code Instead, the chemistry that encodes the genes in brain the signatures attract or repel other chemicals Put simply, the brain adapts to the expe- that help the genes produce the proteins that riences it has. Certain types of adaptations re- are the building blocks our brains and bod- sult in healthy systems, such as effective learning ies need to develop.