New study reveals that maternal education levels during pregnancy are linked with epigenetic markers in the child

A landmark study from the University of Oulu has uncovered compelling evidence linking maternal education levels at the time of pregnancy to child’s epigenetic markers (DNA methylation) at key developmental stages: birth, childhood, and adolescence.

The study, the first of its kind, used a large-scale meta-analysis of data from 37 studies in high-income countries in Europe, the USA, and Australia, under the PACE (Pregnancy and Child Epigenetics) consortia. The new findings are published in Molecular Psychiatry by the Nature journal.

This research builds on previous evidence showing that early-life factors such as maternal smoking during pregnancy, education, body mass index (BMI), and nutrition, can affect a child’s health throughout their lives. A low level of maternal education is not a sufficient cause of offspring health per se, but it is often linked to other adverse prenatal exposures. Prior investigations have suggested that changes in DNA methylation may serve as a plausible bridge, connecting early-life exposures to long-term health outcomes in the child. However, the role of social factors in this aspect remains unclear.

This discovery suggests that socio-economic factors, especially maternal education, can have a lasting impact on a child’s health and well-being. This research is a stepping stone towards unveiling biological and social linkages in human development.

Epigenetic markers are changes in DNA methylation that can affect how genes function. The epigenetic markers associated with maternal education in this study have previously been found in relation to maternal folate levels, vitamin B12, smoking, and pre-pregnancy BMI, indicating a nuanced interaction of lifestyle-related exposures during pregnancy.

Importantly, the epigenetic markers identified in this study are located in genes involved in crucial biological processes, such as brain development, metabolism, inflammation, and auto-immunity.

Dr Priyanka Choudhary, the lead author of the study, emphasizes the importance of the findings: "Our research provides compelling evidence that maternal education influences the molecular landscape of offspring across key developmental stages. This opens up avenues for targeted interventions to improve educational access and, in turn, positively impact the health and wellbeing of communities.”

The study's findings provide valuable insight into intergenerational health and the early origins of health and disease. This information also holds promise for further studies to develop public health strategies to reduce health inequalities.

Professor Sylvain Sebert, senior author, states that “Leading this international project between birth cohorts has been a privilege, providing us with the opportunity to contribute valuable evidence in understanding the social determinants of health. Our findings indicate that investing in women's education could result in significant and enduring health benefits.”

The 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.

Last updated: 30.1.2024