Scientists from the University of Aberdeen have been awarded £500,000 from the UK's Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to research the way in which early life circumstances can affect cognition and mood throughout life.
Scientists from the University of Aberdeen have been awarded £500,000 from the UK’s Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to research the way in which early life circumstances can affect cognition and mood throughout life.
Working in collaboration with colleagues from University College London and the University of Cambridge, the study has been funded as part of an initiative to encourage innovative collaboration between the social and biological sciences.
The focus of the study will be ‘epigenetics’, which is one way in which the external environment can set the activity of our genes with long term consequences.
Professor Paul Haggarty of the University of Aberdeen is lead researcher on the project. Professor Haggarty explains: “We know that the social circumstances people are born into can influence health and wellbeing throughout life and even into old age. But if we are to improve health and wellbeing we need to understand how this happens. There has been a lot of interest recently in the idea that the early environment somehow ‘gets under the skin’ to become embedded in an individual’s biology and it is this that determines long term health and wellbeing. That is the focus of this project.
“This is an exciting time to be working in this field as new molecular and imaging technologies are now allowing us to probe the complex interactions between the social environment, human biology, and the brain. We will be focusing on epigenetic signatures that are set before birth, and that are important for brain function, cognition, mood and behaviour.”
Professor Haggarty will work on the project alongside colleagues who work with the invaluable research source of the Aberdeen Birth Cohorts. They will study volunteers who were born in Aberdeen in 1936 and in 1921 and whose lives have provided a rich source of research data to learn more about how life events and circumstances affect many areas of health throughout life, including how our brains age.
Co-researcher, imaging expert Professor Alison Murray, added: “The Aberdeen Birth Cohorts were established to investigate the factors affecting cognition and how and why cognitive function changes across the lifespan and this study fits well with those aims. We couldn’t do this type of work without the help of the study participants and they continue to make an important contribution to research that we hope will help improve the health of future generations.”
Professor Haggarty added: “This project also links directly to other Aberdeen programmes of research looking at the effect of early life circumstances on the brain, and the ways in which contemporary factors – such as mother’s diet, social circumstances, and even fertility treatment – can influence the future health of babies born today.
“The hope is that a better understanding of this process, and the factors that influence it, will help us develop effective strategies to improve health and well-being and maintain cognitive function as long as possible into old age.”