The Sydney Morning Herald

Research finds nurture not nature plays part in make-up of children

Author: Amy Corderoy
Date: 19/10/2012
Words: 863
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 8
Scientist are linking early childhood experiences with the onset of everything from depression to arthritis in later life, writes Amy Corderoy.

MEGAN* promised herself she would never repeat her mother's mistakes. But when she realised she was refusing to cuddle her five-year-old son, Jayson, she saw her mother in herself.

"There was a certain age where my mum did the same thing," she says. "The only time we got a hug was on our birthday."

Jayson had been sexually assaulted, and was developing difficult behaviour problems in school and at home. She feared for his future.

But two years later Megan, 25, says things have improved drastically.

Her family enrolled in a trial program called Getting on Track In Time, which targets children identified by classroom teachers as having severe behavioural problems.

"It helped ... me to love my son again instead of being angry at him all the time for misbehaving," she says.

This and other projects are part of a new wave of treatments for the very young, seeking the holy grail of medicine: prevention rather than cure.

And increasingly, scientists are looking to even earlier points in a child's life for social triggers for conditions as diverse as depression to arthritis.

Emerging scientific research is also raising the question of whether adversity - in particular poverty - could change our most fundamental genetic characteristics, a process known as epigenetics.

More than one in six Australian children live in poverty, according to research released this week by the Australian Council of Social Service.

Professor Michael Kobor runs a laboratory at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he is trying to unlock the secrets of how early life adversity influences our genes.

His research was published last week in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as part of a collection of papers on the long-term health effects of childhood adversity.

The study, of more than 14,000 human genes from 92 adults, found variations in the DNA methylation - thought to influence how our genes are expressed as characteristics - were linked with demographic and environmental factors, and stress. In particular they found a link to early life - but not later life - socio-economic status.

"Somehow this early life experience ... gets under the skin, to basically help sculpt the epigenetic markers, and that seems to be sticking with us for a long time," he says.

Also in the journal was a study of more than a 1000 people that found low income, particularly in the prenatal period to the second year of life, was linked to a doubled risk of early-onset adult high blood pressure and arthritis.

The researchers speculated that in infant-hood we are particularly sensitive to stress, which can cause a proinflammatory state and extensive changes to blood-flow and the function of the chemical messengers that help our cells communicate.

"Over-reaction of the immune system seems to be linked to socioeconomic status in early life, and that's potentially not a good thing, because we want the immune system to be in check, not going bonkers," Professor Kobor says.

Another paper found children who spent their first years of life in orphanages were more likely to have reduced executive functioning in their brains; yet another that children who had subordinate social status in kindergarten experienced more behavioural problems and poorer academic outcomes.

Findings such as these are politicising researchers like never before, says the chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, Michael Moore.

Radical ideas largely abandoned by mainstream politicians seem made newly relevant.

"The challenge for people who look at social determination in areas like health ... is that they don't fit into the discourse of modern politics," he says.

Mr Moore - a former ACT independent MP who served as health minister under a Liberal government - says the black and white nature of policy-making means people who flourish despite poor circumstances are held up as arguments against the need for social equality.

A Senate committee is holding an inquiry into the issue and almost all of the 21 published submissions, largely from researchers and health promotion groups, recommend measures to tackle unequal distribution of wealth.

But Professor Kobor is hesitant to recommend public policy on the basis of early genetic work, although he is working with a PhD student examining that very prospect.

"Somehow the social environment is correlated with these epigenetic markers, but the question is what does it mean? And I think we are not yet close to answering that question," he says. "It's hard at this point to even really say ... whether these changes are positive or negative."

Megan is just relieved to have had some help.

"I didn't want Jayson to grow up like me," she says. "He is changing the way he approaches things, changing his behaviour, and I think now he is going to grow up differently".

*Names have been changed.


More than 2.2 million Australians, or 1 in 8, are living below the poverty line.

575,000 children are living below the poverty line.

5 per cent of Australians, about a million people, were "food insecure" in 2004-05.

Poverty rose by about one third of a percentage point from 2003 to 2010.

Source: ACOSS and Anglicare

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