Maternal education level during pregnancy linked with epigenetic changes in the offspring

Recent advances in epigenetics have paved way to explore how environmental influences throughout our lives can cause changes at molecular level, thereby influencing our health and well-being.

The Decoding Health and Disease blog is delighted to welcome guest writer Priyanka Choudhary, who shares insights in this post regarding the results of a recent publication studying maternal education levels in relation to epigenetic markers of the child. The study revealed interesting findings on associations between maternal education levels during pregnancy and epigenetic markers of the child at three different time points during their life course: at birth, in childhood and in adolescence.

Education and DNAm

What exactly is epigenetics?

In simple terms, epigenetic (‘epi’ means ‘on top of’) changes are primarily modifications to gene functionality. That is, they do not cause variations to the DNA sequence but only influence gene activity. These changes can in turn predispose individuals to diseases and other health-related outcomes in the long run.

There are multiple epigenetic processes, and the most studied is DNA methylation, where a methyl group is attached to a particular position on the DNA sequence. Changes in the methylation level further determine normal or abnormal gene activity.

Epigenetic changes are dynamic in nature and have been found to be sensitive to various environmental exposures throughout our lifetime, such as smoking, alcohol, diet, obesity, etc. These changes can either be reversible or persist throughout an individual’s life course.

Association between maternal education and epigenetics

Although it is well established that maternal education level correlates with a child’s development, growth, and many other aspects of their overall wellbeing, the underlying mechanisms behind this remain unclear. Our large-scale study combined data from 37 studies (including 14,638 individuals) from high-income countries in Europe, the USA and Australia. We identified that maternal education at the time of pregnancy is associated with DNA methylation level measured in the child at three important development stages in life, i.e. at birth, in childhood and in adolescence. These findings were important to recognize how social factors, in this case maternal education, leave a biological remnant through epigenetic markers in the offspring. It equips us to recognize the underlying molecular mechanism that bridges social factors with health-related outcomes.

Moreover, the genes related to the detected epigenetic sites were found to be involved in important biological processes such as brain development, metabolism, and inflammation, amongst others. Our findings of DNA methylation sites overlapped with previous studies examining various measures during pregnancy, such as the mother’s smoking status, vitamin B12 levels, folate measures and body mass index. This highlights that maternal education is a multidimensional measure and may entail a complex hub of various factors that a child can be exposed to during pregnancy.

Why are social factors important?

Previous epidemiological evidence has shown that social factors, such as education, income, family, and neighbourhood, influence our health in myriad ways. Maternal education serves not only as a predictor of socio-economic status that establishes one’s economic security, family conditions, and material and financial accesses but, at the same time, plays a crucial role in determining health choices and decision-making. Often it is complex to explain a direct link between social factors and how they can affect our biology. This research is an important first step in finding that piece of the puzzle and gathering evidence for the intricacies of bio-social dynamics.

Through this research we provide invaluable insights into understanding social drivers of health and their effects across generations. Moreover, we have generated publicly available data that open avenues for future research to develop further understanding of these mechanisms.


Priyanka Choudhary

Research article: Priyanka Choudhary et al. (2023). Maternal educational attainment in pregnancy and epigenome-wide DNA methylation changes in the offspring from birth until adolescence. Molecular Psychiatry.