Interpreting epigenetic signatures in studies of early life adversity (INTERSTELA)


A network of social and biological researchers united by the goal of understanding the relationship between early life adversity and epigenetic variation. Our project involves research into the epigenetic marks associated with various forms of early life adversity, and takes a life course perspective to examine whether these epigenetic changes persist across the life course. A number of training and dissemination workshops and activities will take place in addition to networking activities designed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.

Early life adversity

Early life adversity can have a significant and lasting effect on social, developmental and health outcomes. Various markers of early life adversity include:

  • low socio-economic position (SEP)
  • parental death
  • illness or divorce
  • separation from parents
  • parental mental health or addiction
  • lack of warmth and affection of parent-child relationships
  • residential instability
  • physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

These factors are associated with lower educational attainment, income and economic participation, as well as with adverse health behaviours and poorer mental and physical health outcomes. Reducing or potentially eliminating the harmful effects of early adversity is crucial for combating inequalities. There is a large body of evidence documenting and describing the long-term consequences of early life adversity, but the pathways and mechanisms through which they occur remain uncertain. 

Epigenetics and DNA methylation

Epigenetics is a potential molecular mechanism linking early life adversity with later outcomes. DNA methylation is one type of epigenetic change. It is a chemical change to our DNA that influences the extent to which our genes are expressed. DNA methylation can respond to environmental factors in early life. Animal models have shown links between early life stress and altered methylation patterns, and more recently evidence from human studies has shown that low socio-economic position and abuse are associated with differences in methylation patterns. 

A network of researchers

Our aim is to create a network of researchers working on the relationship between early life adversity and DNA methylation. Bringing together a team of social and biological researchers will enable us to share data and expertise in order to drive the field forwards and speed up progress. We will use existing high-quality data from studies where people have been followed across the life course in order to better understand how early life adversity affects changes in DNA methylation and whether there are other factors that alter these relationships. In addition to carrying out specific research projects in this area, network members will meet at a series of workshops, in which the results from research will be discussed and future projects will be planned.


Principal Investigator

Dr Laura Howe

Senior Research Fellow in Epidemiology

University of Bristol

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