Behavioural Epigenetics – The Effect of Childhood Adversity

Author(s): Shams Al Jassar

Mentor(s): Lisa Gring-Pemble, School of Business


Behavioural epigenetics refers to the influence of the environmental changes an organism experiences on their social or cognitive behaviour. Analysis of behavioural epigenetics has largely relied on animal models and the specific neurological changes experienced by a variety of species placed under differing conditions of parental care, resulting in limited evidence that epigenetic mechanisms can influence the future behaviour of humans. To attempt to understand behavioural epigenetics in human models, the preliminary research of this proposal will focus on childhood adversity as a contributing factor to epigenetic changes in addition to the effects of these changes on social or cognitive human behaviour as well as the development of certain diseases within adulthood. Through the lines of inquiry recognized in the preliminary research, the arising research question becomes: To what extent do behavioural epigenetics affect human behaviour during their life’s course from adolescents to adults? The proposed methodology for approaching this question is through qualitative data collection from a variety of audio-recorded interviews of a sample size of individuals who have experienced childhood adversity and identify childhood adversity as a driving factor of their social or cognitive behaviour as young adults. The interviews will be transcribed into coded interviews to create certain associations between general forms of childhood adversity and their resulting impact to allow for a more accurate comparison method between commonalities in language (similarities of phrases, statements, words, etc.). Understanding the sociology and psychology behind epigenetic research will provide context to the causes of certain behavioural changes in humans as a result of adversity experienced in adolescence which can ultimately be linked to the epigenetic mechanisms associated with these changes and the risk of disease development.

Video Transcript

Hello! My name is Shams Al Jassar and I’m currently an Undergraduate Biology major here at Mason enrolled in the Honors 110 course and I’m going to be presenting my preliminary research in behavioural epigenetics, more specifically the effect of childhood adversity. [0:00-0:16]

So behavioural epigenetics refers to the influence of the environmental changes that an organism experiences on its social or cognitive behaviour. It can be impacted by a variety of environmental changes, and more generally speaking, these can include parental care and youth experiences which can then influence the human epigenome. Therefore, an offspring’s individual experiences can then  indirectly contribute to their behavior as adults or their risk for developing certain diseases as they age, which is essentially the entire point of behavioural epigenetics. 


The significant scholarship involved with behavioural epigenetics stems from two approaches, first there’s the neurological approach and that focuses on the neural functions of the brain in reaction to certain environmental triggers. The physiological approach on the other hand focuses on the changes in social or cognitive behaviours of humans due to specific epigenetic mechanisms. Both approaches, while seemingly building upon each other, actually regard two different disciplines, Neuroscience and the Behavioural Sciences, allowing us to compare and contrast epigenetic research in both disciplines through the lens of the neurological and physiological perspective.


Some of the more profound findings regarding childhood adversity as a contributing factor to epigenetic changes comes from the research done by authors Kundakovic and Champagne. They actually compared animal and human epigenetic research to prove that despite primates and other animals having differing indicators of social behavior, there is still a link regarding the impact of negative parental care in primates like rhesus monkeys for example and human beings. Interestingly, this opens up the possibility for scientists to transcribe animal models of epigenetic research to human models of epigenetic research. There is a significant limitation in conducting epigenetic research in humans due to the prolonged period in which all environmental experiences should be considered in comparison to animal models in which you can situate the animals to be exposed to certain circumstances or experiences. So viewing the epigenetic mechanisms that are essentially impacting the neural functions of animals can then provide a foundational framework for conducting epigenetic research within humans in isolated conditions.


So when I considered childhood adversity as a contributing factor to epigenetic changes, I then considered disease development as an effect of these changes. Authors Miller, Chen, and Parker actually proposed a model to correlate childhood stress with chronic diseases of aging. The model is called the Biological Embedding in Childhood Adversity model. Through their findings, they considered that there is a certain incubation period that exists when individuals experience childhood adversity and the time at which they develop certain diseases of aging. That incubation period is the limitation of conducting human epigenetic research because there are a variety of environmental experiences that an individual can undergo which do not include childhood adversity and can impact the development of these diseases.


 From these lines of inquiry recognized, my working research question then becomes: To what extent do behavioural epigenetics affect human behaviour during their life’s course from adolescents to adults?


My proposed methodology for answering this question or approaching it is through qualitative research that focuses on collecting data from a variety of audio recorded interviews of a small sample size of individuals that identify childhood adversity as a driving factor for their social or cognitive behavior as young adults. I’m taking a page out of Dr. Blake Silver’s book – He conducted or oversaw, I guess, a research project that used coded interviews. This essentially takes transcripts of interviews and creates parent and child codes which allow you to compare certain commonalities in language, and by identifying these commonalities in language like similarities in phrases, you can connect the types of childhood adversity to specific epigenetic mechanisms involved with them which can provide us an understanding of the sociological and physiological context behind behavioural epigenetics. This is essentially what I aim to do since it is not feasible for me to pursue a neurological approach to conducting my research. 


These are my references and thank you so much for your time.


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