$3 million NIH grant to study molecular marks left by adverse events in childhood

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
By: Cynthia McMullen



Edwin van den Oord at 2014 Lowenthal Symposium on epigenetics of psychiatric disorders

Researchers at VCU School of Pharmacy’s Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine, in collaboration with Duke University School of Medicine, have received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study how adverse childhood experiences leave molecular marks in DNA that can predict health risks later in life.

“Childhood adverse experiences such as severe illness, neglect or maltreatment have been robustly linked to psychiatric and other medical conditions where the consequences often persist far into adulthood,” said Edwin van den Oord, director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine and principal investigator on the five-year study.

“Our goal,” he said, “is to study how these early adverse experiences become biologically embedded and how they create long-term health risks.”

“An accumulation of evidence from animal and human research implicates DNA methylation,” said Karolina Aberg, associate director of the center. She is responsible for the laboratory components of the project, which will involve measuring the methylation status of the approximately 28 million possible sites in the human genome via the most recent high throughput sequencing technology.

Methylation is a process that involves small chemical changes to the DNA, which can be the result of the environmental factors such as adverse events.

Karolina Aberg speaking at 2014 Lowenthal Symposium

Karolina Aberg speaking at 2014 Lowenthal Symposium

The project builds on a Duke University study that began when its subjects were 9 to 13 years old; those children now are adults in their 30s. Because detailed assessments as well as blood samples were obtained at two-year intervals, the investigators can compare DNA methylation profiles before and after adverse events and link changes to health outcomes later in life.

 “DNA methylation can be measured cost-effectively, and blood samples are relatively easy to collect,” said van den Oord. “The study could therefore result in biomarkers that can be used in the clinic to assess the biological impact of childhood adversity to help better manage health risks.”

The project is supported by NIH grant R01MH104576.

The Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine has been in operation since 2006. The center’s mission is to alleviate the tremendous personal, familial and societal burden of mental illnesses by using the latest genomic technologies to help develop new medications and find biomarkers that can be used in the clinic to improve treatment.