Epigenetic modifications are chemical changes that affect how genes are expressed without altering the genetic sequence. While epigenetic modifications occur naturally in several vital processes inside the human body, they can be influenced by the environment.
Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a critical role in a person’s ease in forming relationships, caregiving, and social development in general. A recent study by Kathleen Krol, a Hartwell Postdoctoral Fellow in UVA’s Department of Psychology, suggested the impact of early maternal caregiving on oxytocin system development in their offspring.
This study helped connect maternal-infant interaction with epigenetic modifications in the human oxytocin system and act as a foundation for further describing the underlying mechanisms, determining how long the modifications can last, and understanding the downstream effects from infants to adults.
Read the original publication of this study here: [ Maternal Interaction May Influence the Epigenetics of Baby’s Social Development ]
Learn how early maternal behavior may help regulate the development of the oxytocin system in infants
Maternal Interaction May Influence the Epigenetics of Baby’s Social Development
The team recruited 101 mothers with 5-month-old babies and observed how they interacted with each other in a short play period. For example, researchers assessed how physically close the mother was to her baby, how much eye contact they shared, how talkative the mother was, and many other factors. DNA from saliva samples from mother and child were then collected at the five-month visit and a visit later when infants were 18 months old. The mothers were also asked to provide details on the negative temperament of their children.
Results showed that the babies who had more involvement with their mothers during the observed sessions exhibited a fall in DNA methylation. On the contrary, those with less attention from their moms showed higher methylation levels.
Besides, the babies with decreased methylation levels showed a decrease in negative temperament. In contrast, those with increased methylation at 18 months old expressed more negative temperament and became more sensitive to different stimuli, including intense sounds and lights, specific odors, and textures.
It is likely premature to conclude parenting guidance based solely on one genetic difference as in the study. However, the findings could offer helpful advice for caregivers of young toddlers and children. That said, successful interactions with caregivers build the foundations for the social development of infants, which may ultimately facilitate their lifetime ability to engage and cooperate with others.
- Infants with more involvement with their mothers displayed a decrease in DNA methylation.
- Infants with less maternal engagement expressed more negative temperament and sensitivity to different stimuli.
- Findings prompted the role of successful maternal interactions on the positive social behaviors of infants and their lifetime social development.