Social Epigenetics

Research now shows how diverse social and environmental factors (the social determinants of health) such as maternal health and education, nutrition, environmental toxins, social conditions such as housing and poverty, and child rearing practices affect how our genetic building blocks (DNA) are expressed.  The differences in gene expression contribute to individual differences in health, development and behavior.  Social epigenetics is the process by which early life experience influence chemical reactions that in turn alter the ways our genes function or are expressed.  And these differences in expression influence lifelong health and wellbeing.

Gene Expression Collaborative for Kids Only (GECKO), led by Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, was one of HELP’s first research programs aimed at developing new knowledge of how early experiences may create epigenetic modifications in stress-responsive brain circuitry and genes.  GECKO has helped launch HELP’s longer-term effort to design, develop and conduct longitudinal, population-level studies that explore how neurogenomic factors alter child developmental outcomes.

HELP’s affiliated scholars, Drs. Anthony Herdman, Michael Kobor, and Timothy Oberlander, are involved in collaborative work,  focusing on aspects of brain dynamics and neural-networking, epigenetic regulation of gene expression, and early social experience and biobehavioral development during childhood.

Like HELP’s interdisciplinary research approach and cell-to-society interests, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) has a research program aimed at answering questions tied to early experiences, social resilience and population health. CIFAR’s Experience-based Brain and Biological Development program, co-directed by W. Thomas Boyce, explores the question of how social experiences and settings affect developmental biology and set early trajectories of lifelong development and health.