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J Neurodev Disord. 2011 Sep;3(3):238-49. doi: 10.1007/s11689-011-9079-2. Epub 2011 Mar 11.

DNA methylation, the early-life social environment and behavioral disorders.

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Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, McGill University, Montreal, QC, H3G 1Y6, Canada,


One of the outstanding questions in behavioral disorders is untangling the complex relationship between nurture and nature. Although epidemiological data provide evidence that there is an interaction between genetics (nature) and the social and physical environments (nurture) in a spectrum of behavioral disorders, the main open question remains the mechanism. Emerging data support the hypothesis that DNA methylation, a covalent modification of the DNA molecule that is a component of its chemical structure, serves as an interface between the dynamic environment and the fixed genome. We propose that modulation of DNA methylation in response to environmental cues early in life serves as a mechanism of life-long genome adaptation. Under certain contexts, this adaptation can turn maladaptive resulting in behavioral disorders. This hypothesis has important implications on understanding, predicting, preventing, and treating behavioral disorders including autism that will be discussed.

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