Abstract illustration of DNA

Understanding how genes and environment interact

A new institute dedicated to children’s mental health hosted a symposium on epigenetics

Epigenetics—the study of the mechanisms by which genes and environment interact—is a fast-growing field. Many disciplines are grappling with the implications of path-breaking studies in the ongoing discovery of how “nature” and “nurture” interact and new opportunities for research.

Perhaps no discipline has more at stake than child development. Understanding factors such as trauma and adversity that influence the expression of genes has the potential to bring relief and healing to children and families desperately in need—and to prevent damaging outcomes in the first place.

That’s why, when the Institute for Translational Research on Children’s Mental Health planned its inaugural symposium last spring, the topic was epigenetics. With some of the world’s leading minds at the helm, the new institute was able to draw stars in the field along with a new generation of scholars.

For three days in May, more than 170 researchers from more than 25 universities, physicians, psychologists, social workers, and representatives from hospitals, clinics, schools, agencies, and foundations gathered at the Cowles Auditorium on the Twin Cities campus to see a dozen presentations and panels on the topic.

Sir Michael Rutter, a professor of developmental psychopathology from King’s College, London, who holds an honorary degree from the University, opened the symposium. He laid out the contours of the field and the basics of what is known about gene–environment interactions.

“The movie of life”

Epigenetics mechanisms change genetic effects through influences on gene expression without altering the gene sequence. These mechanisms include alterations to the DNA itself—for example, through a process known as “methylation” or through modification of the large histone proteins around which the DNA is spooled. Epigenetic changes can occur both in specific tissue (certain brain regions, for example) and at specific periods of development.

The presenters discussed their work in a variety of contexts, such as documenting the impact of low socioeconomic status (SES) across the lifespan (“How does SES ‘get under the skin’ to contribute to disease? How does it ‘incubate’ for decades?”), maternal care and stress, child maltreatment and risk of mental illness, and DNA methylation “signatures” in 15-year-olds who were in utero during Quebec’s ice storm of 1998.

“It’s like an interactive movie in which the options are still limited by the author,” said Moshe Szyf, a doctor from McGill University Medical School who was the first to demonstrate that methylation is reversible.

Methylation and demethylation can be transmitted to the next generation. Dante Cicchetti, professor and director of research for the new institute, thinks that measuring DNA methylation changes in response to intervention could lead to prevention and intervention strategies that promote healthy physical and mental outcomes. A major focus of Cicchetti’s research is child maltreatment.

According to Cicchetti, “It will be important to determine if decreasing the negative effects of maltreatment through an intervention alters the epigenome, which in turn results in a ‘less risky’ epigenome being transmitted to the next generation.”

On a lively panel, presenters debated issues of translating research into interventions and impacting policy. It took 50 years for research on the effects of smoking to lead to action, Rutter remarked; confidence in the body of research is required, yet the need to intervene is urgent.

“This elucidates one piece of a very big puzzle,” said Columbia University’s Frances Champagne. “Care [i.e. a child’s environment] has a very real impact.”

Between sessions and in the evenings, participants had plenty of time to talk informally, share ideas, and explore the potential for collaborations. Many participants expressed their excitement about the “buffet of ideas” presented at the symposium.

“As a prevention researcher who has just dipped her toes into the genetic quagmire, the symposium contributed to my own learning and adaptation,” said professor Abi Gewirtz. “I was impressed by the speakers, of course, but also by the ingenuity of nature and our biology—so many different pathways that interact and allow for redundancies as they contribute to long-term adaptation.”

Bridging the gap from research to practice

The symposium served as an occasion to welcome colleagues and the community to the new Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health.

The institute formed in 2013 to bridge the gap between research and community practice in children’s mental health. Located downtown near the University’s West Bank campus, its new mental health counseling and training clinic and lab will soon provide service to high-risk families and provide University clinical graduate students a training ground in evidence-based treatment interventions.

“We know that children’s mental health is a predictor of educational and mental health outcomes well into adulthood,” says institute administrative director Chris Bray. “Treatment and prevention programs that can prevent the onset of mental health problems among children and youth reduce the cost of potential long-lasting consequences while improving productivity and resilience.”

The institute’s leadership is a powerhouse trio. Director Abi Gewirtz is an internationally known prevention researcher who specializes in work with families dealing with traumatic events, with appointments in the top-ranked Institute of Child Development and in the Department of Family Social Science.

Director of research Dante Cicchetti is the McKnight Presidential Chair of Psychology and Psychiatry and William Harris Chair in the Institute of Child Development and Department of Psychiatry. One of the top grantees of the National Institute of Health, in 2012 he won the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his 30 years of multilevel research on the consequences of child maltreatment and conditions that lead to resilience.

The director of training and education is Gerry August, who joined the Department of Family Social Science last year after a distinguished career in the Department of Psychiatry. He is a prevention researcher renowned for his work with children suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and at risk for behavior disorders. August is also the executive director of the Center for Personalized Prevention Research.

Core faculty of the Institute for Translational Research on Children’s Mental Health are, left to right: director of research Dante Cicchetti, director Abi Gewirtz, and director of training and education Gerry August.
Core faculty of the Institute for Translational Research on Children’s Mental Health are, left to right: director of research Dante Cicchetti, director Abi Gewirtz, and director of training and education Gerry August.

Update December 2016: A special section in Development and Psychopathology, 28 (4, part 2), 2016, dedicated to topics presented at the inaugural symposium “Epigenetics: Development, Psychopathology, Resilience and Preventive Intervention,” has been published by Cambridge University Press.

Story by Gayla Marty | Portrait by Nate Howard