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Can strong parental bond protect infants down to their DNA?

July 22, 2014
Tulane University
Scientists are launching a groundbreaking study looking at critical periods early in a child’s life when exposure to stressors matters most. The goal is to track telomeres – a cellular marker for aging and stress – to discover the biological mechanism for how early trauma gets under the skin, potentially stealing time from a child’s biological clock. Can parents create a biological buffer that shields children decades later from disease and toxic stress?

Tulane University psychiatrist Dr. Stacy Drury has been given $2.4 million by the National Institutes of Health to test a provocative new theory -- how well children bond with a parent in the first year of life leaves lasting genetic protection, potentially shielding them from disease risks well into adulthood.

Drury, a geneticist, is a pioneer in new research exploring the biological impacts of early adversity on children. She is the first scientist to show that extreme stress in infancy can biologically age a child by shortening the tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres. These caps keep chromosomes from shrinking when cells replicate. Shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for heart disease, cognitive decline, diabetes and mental illness in adults.

"Telomeres are clearly a marker of the aging process, but they are increasingly being linked to stress," says Drury, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University School of Medicine. "And what this suggests is that we have a marker that is in a cell that is sort of tracking the lasting impact of these negative early life experiences."

She and Tulane scientists are recruiting 500 pregnant women to see if a responsive and sensitive parental bond can create a "biological buffer" in children that protects against telomere shortening and toxic stress.

The Tulane Infant Development Study will be the first to document what happens physiologically before and after infants develop "attachment," the all-important bond with mothers or primary caregivers. More than 140 expectant mothers are enrolled. Researchers are working with area clinics and social service agencies to recruit participants during the next five years.

"This is all designed with a goal to gather information that is useful in improving health outcomes in our city," she says. "If I just need to really strengthen that (parenting) relationship for the first six months of life and that is going to improve health outcomes for decades? That's an easy sell, right? It's also an easy sell to moms and caregivers."

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Tulane University. "Can strong parental bond protect infants down to their DNA?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 July 2014. <>.
Tulane University. (2014, July 22). Can strong parental bond protect infants down to their DNA?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 27, 2017 from
Tulane University. "Can strong parental bond protect infants down to their DNA?." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 27, 2017).