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Children's biobehavioral reactivity to challenge predicts DNA methylation in adolescence and emerging adulthood.


A growing body of research has documented associations between adverse childhood environments and DNA methylation, highlighting epigenetic processes as potential mechanisms through which early external contexts influence health across the life course. The present study tested a complementary hypothesis: indicators of children's early internal, biological, and behavioral responses to stressful challenges may also be linked to stable patterns of DNA methylation later in life. Children's autonomic nervous system reactivity, temperament, and mental health symptoms were prospectively assessed from infancy through early childhood, and principal components analysis (PCA) was applied to derive composites of biological and behavioral reactivity. Buccal epithelial cells were collected from participants at 15 and 18 years of age. Findings revealed an association between early life biobehavioral inhibition/disinhibition and DNA methylation across many genes. Notably, reactive, inhibited children were found to have decreased DNA methylation of the DLX5 and IGF2 genes at both time points, as compared to non-reactive, disinhibited children. Results of the present study are provisional but suggest that the gene's profile of DNA methylation may constitute a biomarker of normative or potentially pathological differences in reactivity. Overall, findings provide a foundation for future research to explore relations among epigenetic processes and differences in both individual-level biobehavioral risk and qualities of the early, external childhood environment.

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