Early life events both before and after birth have a long-lasting impact on physical and mental health trajectories later in life. Several lines of evidence point to the early origin of adult-onset diseases and psychiatric disorders. For example, nutritional restriction or maternal stress during pregnancy has been correlated with an increased risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease (Ozanne & Constancia, 2007). Postnatally, adverse socioeconomic status during early childhood has been firmly linked to a susceptibility to the same conditions, as well as autoimmune disease, whereas childhood abuse is a major risk factor in the development of mood and anxiety disorders (Heim & Nemeroff, 2001; Kendler, Kuhn, & Prescott, 2004; see also Seraphin et al.; Nater & Heim, this volume). The critical question is, what are the mechanisms that mediate the effects of the early environment on our health and mental well-being, producing stable, long-lasting changes? It is now widely believed that epigenetics may constitute the mechanism that binds nurture and nature. “Epigenetics” is a polysemous term that in the present context refers to various mechanisms in the cell's nucleus that control genetic activity without altering the DNA sequence. The “epigenome” refers to the configuration of epigenetic modifiers of gene activation around the genome. Recent data suggest that epigenetic programming of gene expression profiles represented in the epigenome is sensitive to the early-life environment and that both the chemical and social environment early in life could affect the manner by which the genome is programmed by the epigenome.
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