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Socially stratified epigenetic profiles are associated with cognitive functioning in children and adolescents

By Laurel Raffington, Peter Tanksley, Aditi Sabhlok, Liza Vinnik, Travis T Mallard, Lucy King, Bridget Goosby, Kathryn Paige Harden, Elliot M Tucker-Drob

Posted 23 Aug 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.08.19.456979

Children's cognitive functioning and educational performance are socially stratified. Social inequality, including classism and racism, may operate partly via epigenetic mechanisms that modulate neurocognitive development. Following preregistered analyses of data from 1,183 8- to 19-year-olds from the Texas Twin Project, we examined whether salivary DNA-methylation measures of inflammation (DNAm-CRP), cognitive functioning (Epigenetic-g), and pace of biological aging (DunedinPoAm) are socially stratified and associated with performance on tests of cognitive functions. We find that children growing up in more disadvantaged families and neighborhoods and children from marginalized racial/ethnic groups exhibit DNA-methylation profiles associated with higher chronic inflammation, lower cognitive functioning, and faster pace of biological aging. These salivary DNA-methylation profiles were associated with processing speed, general executive function, perceptual reasoning, verbal comprehension, reading, and math. Given that the DNA-methylation measures we examined were originally developed in adults, our results suggest that social inequalities may produce in children molecular signatures that, when observed in adults, are associated with chronic inflammation, advanced aging, and reduced cognitive function. Salivary DNA-methylation profiles might be useful as a surrogate endpoint in assessing the effectiveness of psychological and economic interventions that aim to reduce negative effects of childhood social inequality on lifespan development.

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