Epigenetics - How children's experiences shape their genes

Published on Wednesday, 03 April 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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It's well known that young children benefit from supportive relationships and quality early learning opportunities, but according to an emerging field of scientific research, these positive early experiences can actually change youngsters' genes.

Here we delve into the fascinating world of 'epigenetics' and see the far-reaching impact of a child's first influences, according to researchers at Harvard University.

What is epigenetics?

Children inherit genes from their biological parents, which guide their development. Epigenetics shows how environmental influences affect the expression of these genes in each child.

Instead of being a static part of their make-up, genes accumulate chemical marks called the 'epigenome' as the child develops, and these marks are rearranged and shaped by different experiences the child has.

The epigenome determines how much or how little of the child’s genes are expressed, and Harvard University says, 'Experiences very early in life, when the brain is developing most rapidly, cause epigenetic adaptations that influence whether, when and how genes release their instructions for building future capacity for health, skills and resilience.'

This means epigenetics throws out the whole 'nature vs nurture' debate and acknowledges that both nature and nurture contribute to the abilities, behaviours, achievements and health of children. It explains how a pair of genetically-identical twins can be different people, due to their unique experiences. It proves that the genes a child is born with are not set in stone.

How do different experiences have different effects of children's genes?

The epigenome can be shaped by both positive and negative experiences, and whether a child enjoys supportive relationships and quality learning opportunities, or is subjected to stress, malnutrition and environmental toxins; these experiences leave a 'unique epigenetic signature on the genes.'

Harvard University says the signatures can be temporary or permanent, and although there are ways to, 'Reverse certain negative changes and restore healthy functioning,' this isn't always easy or possible. Instead, they recommend building strong brains from the get-go, with a focus on positive experiences in the child's formative years.

How can we support children’s epigenetic development?

As children are developing in crucial ways before birth and in their early years, it's vital that parents, child-carers and government provide beneficial experiences for the youngest members of society.

Harvard University says, 'Services such as high quality health care for all pregnant women, infants and toddlers, as well as support for new parents and care-givers can – quite literally – affect the chemistry around children’s genes. Supportive relationships and rich learning experiences generate positive epigenetic signatures that activate genetic potential.'

By encouraging positive experiences like responsive relationships, and removing negative influences, such as stress or poor diet, adults play a vital role in giving our children a strong start and a healthy, productive life.

What genetic myths can now be busted?

With the emergence of epigenetics, we have a better sense of how certain experiences and environmental factors affect youngsters – both in the womb and in their early years.

Here are three misconceptions that have been discredited, thanks to epigenetics:

Myth 1: That the genes a child inherits from their parents set their future development in stone.

As discussed above, we now know that environmental factors have the power to alter inherited genes. So, while a child might inherit their height from their dad or their temperament from their mum, early childhood experiences affect whether and how those genes are expressed.

Myth 2: That negative foetal and early childhood experiences can be 'forgotten' biologically as a child grows.

Epigenetics shows us that damaging experiences, such as toxic stress, before birth and during early childhood, are 'built into the architecture of the developing brain through the epigenome.'

While certain negative experiences can be reversed, Harvard University says that the 'biological memories' linked with these epigenetic changes can have lasting effects on a child's organs, increase their risk of poor physical and mental health, and increase their chance of impaired future learning capacity and behaviour.

Myth 3: That 'enrichment programs' will enhance a child's brain development.

Researchers say there is 'absolutely no scientific evidence' that exposure to enrichment programs such as playing Mozart to newborns, will shape the epigenome or enhance brain function.

However, epigenetic changes do occur in a child's brain cells as they develop their cognitive skills, i.e. learning and memory, so experiences like 'serve and return' interactions with Mummy have proven value. Good maternal and foetal nutrition, along with positive socio-emotional support of children also play an important role in reducing the chance of negative epigenetic changes in a child's genes.

All in all, epigenetics proves once again how incredible the human body is, and it explains how a child's early years shape their future. With positive influences and enriching experiences, youngsters have much to gain.

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