“Motherless Children Have the Hardest Time”: Epigenetic Programming and Early Life Environment

Robert O. Wright

The Blind Willie Johnson blues song “Motherless Children” highlights the maternal bonds that we all know are critical to emotional and cognitive development. Authors of previous work looking at infant stress response have found that these bonds begin in utero and can be influenced by both maternal and paternal influences and across multiple generations.1 The observations of Barker et al2 on the Dutch famine birth cohort of World War II were perhaps the first published observations of this phenomenon.3 Somehow, we carry the benefits and burdens of our childhoods into our adult lives, with impacts made evident on our behavior and also virtually all organ systems. In a new study published in Pediatrics, Lester et al4 evaluate the potential biological factors that underlie these effects.

Memory at the cellular level must be a key marker of programming. The idea that, during early development, important physiologic parameters can be reset by environmental events, …

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