Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long Term Development

five children outside sitting on a bench
Image by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Research has shown that the genes a child inherits from their parents do not set the child’s development. While they do still play a part in a child’s development, there’s still another factor.

What The Research Tells Us

The epigenome doesn’t alter one’s genes but instead attracts or repels chemicals that help with producing proteins that are essential for the development of the body. Some genes can only be modified by the epigenome during certain periods of time, called critical periods.

The experiences a child goes through can cause chemical changes in the brain. These changes can lead to the brain adapting in either positive or negative ways, which can affect a child’s growth. These changes can even happen when during fetal development. Epigenetic modifications have even been linked to mental illnesses like generalized anxiety disorder or major depression disorder.

Chemicals, nutrients, and drugs can also cause changes to the epigenome. Heavy metals has been linked to overactivity in cells which may cause cancer. Organs like the brain can be altered in architecture, affecting how a child will grow up.

However, this may not always be the case. Through animal experiments, researchers have learned that some epigenetic modifications can be reversed. This has implications on the possibilities in humans and sparked even more research.

Debunking Fallacies

The genes a child inherits from their parents do not set the child’s development in stone. While they do play a part, there are other factors involved. The environment may affect the genes that a child inherits. Things like malnutrition, exposure to drugs, and stress can alter the architecture of a child’s brain. The efficacy of enrichment programs to improve a child’s brain development is unknown, but some epigenetic modifications do affect a child’s cognitive abilities.

The Science-Policy Gap

Policy decisions don’t take into account the effects that environments and negative experiences can have on developing children. The gap between policy and science is illustrated in four areas.

  1. Child welfare
  2. Mandated maternal employment and public assistance
  3. Prenatal and newborn health care
  4. Support for new parents

Implications for Policies and Programs

There are five implications of policies concerning epigenomes.

  1. Documented effects on negative epigenetic adaptations have shown the need to protect children from threatening environments. Policy makers should know that delayed action will lead to children who are compromised in their development.
  2. More efforts must be made to prevent exposure of toxins and drugs to pregnant mothers and children.
  3. Having high-quality health services and nutritional support for pregnant women and children may reduce the chances of preventable diseases. Implementation of this will be difficult, especially for those whose native language is not English.
  4. Epigenetic modifications can be passed on to later generations, requiring careful attention to policies affecting how children are raised.
  5. The epigenome and its effects are a recent discovery, so it would be helpful to develop educational campaigns to spread awareness to the public.