Background: Altered DNA methylation (DNAm) may be one pathway through which early-life adversity (ELA) contributes to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. This study investigated whether the presence versus absence of ELA experiences reflecting the dimensions of threat and deprivation were associated with epigenome- wide DNAm cross-sectionally and longitudinally in a community-based sample of children and adolescents.
Methods: In 113 youths aged 8–16 years with wide variability in ELA, we examined associations of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional; indicating threat-related experiences) and neglect (emotional, physical; indicating deprivation- related experiences) with DNAm assessed with the Illumina EPIC BeadChip array, with DNA derived from saliva. In cross-sectional epigenome-wide analyses, we investigated associations of lifetime abuse and neglect with DNAm at baseline. In longitudinal epigenome-wide analyses, we examined whether experiencing abuse and neglect over an approximately 2-year follow-up were each associated with change in DNAm from baseline to follow-up.
Results: In cross-sectional analyses adjusting for lifetime experience of neglect, lifetime experience of abuse was associated with DNAm for four cytosine-phosphodiester-guanine (CpG) sites (cg20241299: coefficient = 0.023,
SE = 0.004; cg08671764: coefficient = 0.018, SE = 0.003; cg27152686: coefficient = − 0.069, SE = 0.012; cg24241897: coefficient = − 0.003, SE = 0.001; FDR < .05). In longitudinal analyses, experiencing neglect over follow-up was associ- ated with an increase in DNAm for one CpG site, adjusting for abuse over follow-up (cg03135983: coefficient = 0.036, SE = 0.006; FDR < .05).
Conclusions: In this study, we identified examples of epigenetic patterns associated with ELA experiences of threat and deprivation that were already observable in youth. We provide novel evidence for change in DNAm over time in relation to ongoing adversity and that experiences reflecting distinct ELA dimensions may be characterized by unique epigenetic patterns.
Keywords: Threat, Deprivation, Abuse, Neglect, DNA methylation