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Family environments and leukocyte transcriptome indicators of a proinflammatory phenotype in children and parents

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 May 2017

Theodore F. Robles*
University of California, Los Angeles
Rena L. Repetti
University of California, Los Angeles
Bridget M. Reynolds
University of Rochester Medical Center
Paul J. Chung
University of California, Los Angeles
Jesusa M. G. Arevalo
University of California, Los Angeles
Steven W. Cole
University of California, Los Angeles
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Theodore F. Robles, Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1285 Psychology Building, Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563; E-mail:


High conflict and low warmth in families may contribute to immune cells developing a tendency to respond to threats with exaggerated inflammation that is insensitive to inhibitory signaling. We tested associations between family environments and expression of genes bearing response elements for transcription factors that regulate inflammation: nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) and glucocorticoid receptor. The overall sample (47 families) completed interviews, questionnaires, and 8-week daily diary assessments of conflict and warmth, which were used to create composite family conflict and warmth scores. The diaries assessed upper respiratory infection (URI) symptoms, and URI episodes were clinically verified. Leukocyte RNA was extracted from whole blood samples provided by a subsample of 42 children (8–13 years of age) and 73 parents. In children, higher conflict and lower warmth were related to greater expression of genes bearing response elements for the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-κB, and more severe URI symptoms. In parents, higher conflict and lower warmth were also related to greater NF-κB–associated gene expression. Monocytes and dendritic cells were implicated as primary cellular sources of differential gene expression in the sample. Consistent with existing conceptual frameworks, stressful family environments were related to a proinflammatory phenotype at the level of the circulating leukocyte transcriptome.

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This research was supported by Research Grant 9333 from the William T. Grant Foundation and R03HD077387 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. We thank Richard Slatcher and Gayla Margolin for their invaluable contributions to the project. Most of all, we thank the parents and children in the UCLA Families and Health study for their participation, and the graduate students, laboratory staff, and undergraduate research assistants for their efforts.


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