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Testing the biological embedding hypothesis: Is early life adversity associated with a later proinflammatory phenotype?

  • Katherine B. Ehrlich (a1), Kharah M. Ross (a2), Edith Chen (a3) and Gregory E. Miller (a3)


Accumulating evidence suggests that the experience of early life adversity is a risk factor for a range of poor outcomes across development, including poor physical health in adulthood. The biological embedding model of early adversity (Miller, Chen, & Parker, 2011) suggests that early adversity might become embedded within immune cells known as monocytes/macrophages, programming them to be overly aggressive to environmental stimuli and insensitive to inhibitory signals, creating a “proinflammatory phenotype” that increases vulnerability to chronic diseases across the life span. We tested this hypothesis in the present study. Adolescent girls (n = 147) had blood drawn every 6 months across a 2.5-year period. To assess inflammatory responses to challenge, their monocytes were stimulated in vitro with a bacterial product, and production of the cytokine interleukin-6 was quantified. Hydrocortisone was added to cultures to assess the cells’ sensitivity to glucocorticoids’ anti-inflammatory signal. Using cluster analyses, we found that early life adversity was associated with greater odds of displaying a proinflammatory phenotype characterized by relatively larger interleukin-6 responses and relatively less sensitivity to glucocorticoids. In contrast, ongoing social stress was not associated with increasing odds of being categorized in the proinflammatory cluster. These findings suggest that early life adversity increases the probability of developing a proinflammatory phenotype, which, if sustained, could forecast risk for health problems later in life.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Katherine B. Ehrlich, Department of Psychology and Center for Family Research, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602; E-mail:


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Testing the biological embedding hypothesis: Is early life adversity associated with a later proinflammatory phenotype?

  • Katherine B. Ehrlich (a1), Kharah M. Ross (a2), Edith Chen (a3) and Gregory E. Miller (a3)


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