Understanding epigenetic mechanisms linking preterm birth and neurodevelopmental disorders

University of Edinburgh

Active award

Student: Eamon Fitzgerald

Year Award Started: 2016

Preterm birth affects ~11% of newborns and is associated with cerebral palsy, learning difficulties and autism spectrum disorder. The mechanisms accounting for these problems are not well understood, but recent studies, including our own, suggest that some of the effects on brain development could be mediated through changes in chemical marks on DNA (known as epigenetic marks) which determine how genes function and affect how the brain develops. One further factor which might affect epigenetic marks is exposure to stress hormones (glucocorticoids). Preterm babies are frequently exposed to glucocorticoids before birth because of the beneficial effect on lung development, however studies suggest that exposure to excess glucocorticoids might increase the risk of behavioural problems in childhood and could also alter epigenetic marks in organs such as the brain. Additionally, preterm babies are exposed to a great deal of stress after birth. In this project we will study how exposure to glucocorticoids affects chemical marks on genes and how this impacts on the way genes function in the brain. We hope that these studies will help us understand the mechanisms which lead to problems with brain development in preterm babies, so that we can design suitable interventions to reduce this risk.

Research area: Neurological conditions (including stroke)


Dr Amanda Drake
BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Science
Dr James Boardman
MRC Centre for Reproductive Health

Aquila BioMedical Ltd