Recent studies show that contact between mother and infant can impact the infant’s DNA. Children who had less contact with their mothers during infancy had underdeveloped genes in their cells. This is first study to show in humans that bodily contact during infancy has deep and perhaps very long term effects on the epigenome, the biochemical changes that affect gene expression.
This experiment involved 96 British Columbian children. UBC and BC Children’s Hospital researchers requested parents of 5-week-old infants to create a record of their baby’s behavior and the amount of time the parents spent touching the baby. When the children grew to four or five years old, the scientists swabbed their cheeks to examine their DNA.
The researchers analyzed a biochemical modification process called DNA methylation in the children. In this process, some of the children’s chromosomes are tagged with miniscule carbon and hydrogen molecules, which help regulate how active each gene is. This affects how the cells function.
The amount and location of occurrences of this process can be affected by childhood experiences; scientists found methylation variances between children who had much contact with their parents during infancy and those who had significantly less contact at five different DNA areas. One of these areas is involved in the immune system, and the other influences metabolism. However, the long term effects on children who had less contact have not been determined yet.
What this means for the future
“We plan on following up to see whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development,” says lead author Sarah Moore. Hopefully the researchers soon find the answer to the question of whether or not contact at infancy has long-term impacts on children. This will finally help us estimate the true importance of mother-infant contact. It’s possible that infants with affectionate and tactile mothers will develop life long benefits like a strong immune system and healthy metabolism.
Jessica Yatvitskiy ’21