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Shaping long-term primate development: Telomere length trajectory as an indicator of early maternal maltreatment and predictor of future physiologic regulation

  • Stacy S. Drury (a1), Brittany R. Howell (a2), Christopher Jones (a1), Kyle Esteves (a1), Elyse Morin (a3), Reid Schlesinger (a1), Jerrold S. Meyer (a4), Kate Baker (a1) and Mar M. Sanchez (a3)...


The molecular, neurobiological, and physical health impacts of child maltreatment are well established, yet mechanistic pathways remain inadequately defined. Telomere length (TL) decline is an emerging molecular indicator of stress exposure with definitive links to negative health outcomes in maltreated individuals. The multiple confounders endemic to human maltreatment research impede the identification of causal pathways. This study leverages a unique randomized, cross-foster, study design in a naturalistic translational nonhuman primate model of infant maltreatment. At birth, newborn macaques were randomly assigned to either a maltreating or a competent control mother, balancing for sex, biological mother parenting history, and social rank. Offspring TL was measured longitudinally across the first 6 months of life (infancy) from peripheral blood. Hair cortisol accumulation was also determined at 6, 12, and 18 months of age. TL decline was greater in animals randomized to maltreatment, but also interacted with biological mother group. Shorter TL at 6 months was associated with higher mean cortisol levels through 18 months (juvenile period) when controlling for relevant covariates. These results suggest that even under the equivalent social, nutritional, and environmental conditions feasible in naturalistic translational nonhuman primate models, early adverse caregiving results in lasting molecular scars that foreshadow elevated health risk and physiologic dysregulation.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Mar M. Sanchez, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, 954 Gatewood Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30329; E-mail:


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Funding for this work was obtained from the Tulane National Primate Center Pilot Grant (to K.B.), Tulane Oliver Fund (to S.D.), NIH Grant R01MH101533 (to S.D.), NIH/NIMH Grants MH078105 (to Megan Gunnar; to M.M.S. Project 4) and MH015755 (Institutional NRSA, to Dante Cicchetti; B.R.H., mentee), and Office of Research Infrastructure Programs/OD Grant OD11132 (Yerkes National Primate Research Center Base Grant, formerly RR000165). We thank Anne Glenn, Christine Marsteller, Dora Guzman, and the staff at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center Field Station for the excellent technical support and animal care provided during these studies. The funders had no role in review design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not represent the official views of the NIMH or the NIH. The Yerkes National Primate Research Center is fully accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International. The authors have no conflicts of interest or relevant disclosures.



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