Research ArticlePSYCHOLOGY

Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement

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Science Advances  16 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaay0680
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay0680


The contribution of nature versus nurture to the development of human behavior has been debated for centuries. Here, we offer a piece to this complex puzzle by identifying the human endogenous oxytocin system—known for its critical role in mammalian sociality—as a system sensitive to its early environment and subject to epigenetic change. Recent animal work suggests that early parental care is associated with changes in DNA methylation of conserved regulatory sites within the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTRm). Through dyadic modeling of behavior and OXTRm status across the first year and a half of life, we translated these findings to 101 human mother-infant dyads. We show that OXTRm is dynamic in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament. We provide evidence for an early window of environmental epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin system, facilitating the emergence of individual differences in human behavior.

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