In recent years, a lot of new information has emerged on epigenetics that allows us to better understand how developmental trajectories can be either adaptive or maladaptive.
Experiences and environmental exposures act on genes like a dimmer switch to increase or decrease gene expression, the amount of gene product (RNA, protein) that a gene makes in response to a given environment. This is thought to regulate the neurodevelopment that underlies learning, behavior as well as mental and physical health.
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Not all children react the same way to both adverse and nurturing early experiences. Individual differences in epigenetic susceptibility may well be the explanation behind the various responses to environments. The effects of experience on the modification of gene expression can also be transmitted into the next generation.
Genetics is the study of how characteristics are inherited from one generation to the next through DNA. Epi comes from the Greek word meaning upon or over. Epigenetic processes place marks on or nearby DNA; some of these marks can change the amount of gene product (RNA, protein) a gene makes.
Epigenetics is thought to regulate how the brain develops and how it works. Both are critical for our learning, behavior and health.
One of the central purposes of behavioral epigenetics is to understand how epigenetic marks can change gene expression, and, in turn, the path (trajectory) of development––physical, social and emotional, approach to learning, thinking, and communication and language. Changes to how we develop can range from being adaptive (positive and functional) to maladaptive (negative and dysfunctional).
In children, caring, stable and nurturing environments help build a strong foundation for brain development, lifelong health, learning and normal social and emotional development. At the heart of these environments are caring, stable and nurturing relationships with adults: parents, grandparents, childcare providers, teachers and more.
More research into epigenetics is needed, but it is clear that adverse childhood experiences can affect the genes that are involved with stress responses, immunity and mental and physical health. It’s important for each and every child to live in a caring, stable and nurturing environment and to have similar relationships with adults.
Read the full article about early childhood development from the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
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