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Environmental forces that shape early development: What we know and still need to know

Author: Shankar, K. · Pivik, R.T. · Johnson, S.L. · Ommen, B. van · Demmer, E. · Murray, R.
Source:Current Developments in Nutrition, 8, 2
Identifier: 866278
doi: doi:10.3945/cdn.117.001826
Article number: nzx002
Keywords: Brain development · Childhood obesity · Early childhood · Environment-gene interaction · Maternal obesity · Maternal weight gain · Placenta · Body composition · Child development · Child nutrition · Cognitive development · Correlation analysis · DNA methylation · Environmental exposure · Epigenetics · Fat mass · Feeding behavior · Genetic analysis · Genotype phenotype correlation · Glucose homeostasis · Human · Insulin resistance · Insulin sensitivity · Muscle mass · Nutritional assessment · Nutritional health · Tumor microenvironment


Understanding health requires more than knowledge of the genome. Environmental factors regulate gene function through epigenetics. Collectively, environmental exposures have been called the "exposome." Caregivers are instrumental in shaping exposures in a child's initial years. Maternal dietary patterns, physical activity, degree of weight gain, and body composition while pregnant will influence not only fetal growth, but also the infant's metabolic response to nutrients and energy. Maternal over- or underweight, excess caloric intake, nutrient imbalances, glucose dysregulation, and presence of chronic inflammatory states have been shown to establish risk for many later chronic diseases. During the period from birth to age 3 y, when the infant's metabolic rate is high and synaptogenesis and myelination of the brain are occurring extremely rapidly, the infant is especially prone to damaging effects from nutrient imbalances. During this period, the infant changes from a purely milk-based diet to one including a wide variety of foods. The process, timing, quality, and ultimate dietary pattern acquired are a direct outcome of the caregiver-infant feeding relationship, with potentially lifelong consequences. More research on how meal time interactions shape food acceptance is needed to avoid eating patterns that augment existing disease risk. Traditional clinical trials in nutrition, meant to isolate single factors for study, are inadequate to study the highly interconnected realm of environment-gene interactions in early life. Novel technologies are being used to gather broad exposure data on disparate populations, employing pioneering statistical approaches and correlations applied specifically to the individual, based on their genetic make-up and unique environmental experiences. © 2018 Shankar et al.