Stress can shorten telomeres in childhood

From Nature:

Orph A long-term study of children from Romanian orphanages suggests that the effects of childhood stress could be visible in their DNA as they grow up. Children who spent their early years in state-run Romanian orphanages have shorter telomeres than children who grew up in foster care, according to a study published today in Molecular Psychiatry1. Telomeres are buffer regions of non-coding DNA at the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of protein-coding DNA when cells divide. Telomeres get slightly shorter each time a chromosome replicates during cell division, but stress can also cause them to shorten. Shorter telomeres are associated with a raft of diseases in adults from diabetes to dementia. The study is part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a programme started in 2000 by US researchers who aimed to compare the health and development of Romanian children brought up in the stressful environment of an orphanage with those in foster families, where they receive more individual attention and a better quality of care.

When the study began, state orphanages were still common in Romania, and a foster care system was established specifically for this project. The study focused on 136 orphanage children aged between 6 and 30 months, half of whom were randomly assigned to foster families. The other half remained in orphanages. The researchers obtained DNA samples from the children when they were between 6 and 10 years old, and measured the length of their telomeres. They found that the longer the children had spent in the orphanage in early childhood – before the age of four and half – the shorter their telomeres. “It shows that being in institutional care affects children right down to the molecular level,” says clinical psychiatrist Stacy Drury of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the lead authors on the study.

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