Older woman looking out window
Published on: Oct 10, 2018

Almost 10 million older adults in the U.S. have cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s Disease, or other related dementias. Penn State researchers are looking into how early life adversity, specifically child maltreatment, can affect cognitive aging later in life in a new project.

According to Chad Shenk, associate professor of human development and family studies and principal investigator on the project, early life adversity affects two-thirds of all children in the U.S.

“We know there’s an inverse relation between exposure to early life adversity and the acquisition of cognitive abilities from childhood to adulthood," said Shenk. "What we don’t know is whether early life adversity accelerates cognitive aging and decline at mid-life, prior to the onset of cognitive impairment, and whether there are unique biomarkers in this situation that could aid in the detection and even prevention of late-life cognitive outcomes.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the four-year project will study over 2,900 adults across the U.S., Canada, and Germany to test and replicate findings on the effects of early life adversity on cognitive aging.

Shenk, who also is a co-hire of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, and his team will explore the link between child maltreatment and cognitive aging, focusing on stress-mediating variables.

“We will examine epigenetic age, a measure of the biological age of human tissues and cells, as a stress-sensitive biomarker of early life adversity that predicts impairments in cognitive function at mid-life,” Shenk explained. “Establishing epigenetic age as a biomarker of early life adversity and cognitive aging at mid-life may aid in detecting, delaying or even preventing cognitive decline and impairment in later life.”

According to Shenk, this project will also focus on identifying the mediators of epigenetic aging following early life adversity.

“By examining the multiple pathways leading to accelerations in epigenetic aging," said Shenk, "this project has the potential to identify targets for prevention even prior to mid-life in order to further reduce this risk."

Another goal of the project is to make the results replicable across international cohorts that include diverse demographics.

“This study is the first to prospectively examine the biological impact of early life adversity and cognitive function at mid-life. Replication of results is very important to future cognitive function studies,” said Shenk.

Other researchers on the project include Martin Sliwinski, professor and director of the Center for Healthy Aging; Nilam Ram, professor of human development and family studies; Jennie Noll, professor and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network; Kieran O’Donnell, assistant professor at The Douglas Hospital Research Center, McGill University; Michael Meaney, James McGill Professor, McGill University; and Elisabeth Binder, director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry.

Seed funding was provided by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute.