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Epigenetic, Environmental, and Behavioral Interplay Is Subject of New NIH Funding

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Recent research has shown that behavioral, social, and environmental factors can interact with the human genome in multiple ways, leading to disorders or healthfulness. The US National Institutes of Health plans to fund several new projects to study the role of the epigenome in these contexts.

The agency's Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network program will provide up to $1 million for six or seven research projects that begin to "lay the foundation" for basic research into the role of epigenetics in social, behavioral, environmental, and biological relationships, according to NIH.

The goal is to find out how the epigenome influences a range of behavioral and environmental factors, and vice versa, throughout the lifespan and across generations.

These one-year research projects will use existing bio-psycho-social and environmental data for which biospecimens are available for epigenetic profiling. The aim is to generate data on normal and pathological functions in humans at both the individual and population levels. Knowledge gained through such research could be used to develop better clinical and diagnostic tools and prevention or treatment approaches, NIH said.

These studies further seek to understand mutual interactions between the genome and external processes, such as identifying factors that lead to greater stability, and the interaction of the epigenome with characteristics such as temperament, cognition, perception, emotional regulation, neurodevelopment, and cognitive decline, among others.

Another line of research the funding mechanism is to support involves studying the effects of the environment through social and behavioral processes on the epigenome. These projects may entail the investigation of the effect of socioeconomic status and social hierarchy on the epigenome, and delving into the interaction of environmental, cultural, genetic, and epigenetic differences in diverse populations.

Researchers also may seek to study the effects of epigenetic changes on behavioral outcomes and social processes, such as looking at interactions between the microbiota and the epigenome in relation to behavioral traits, how changes to the epigenome early in life can affect later behavior or behavior in subsequent generations, and the development of risk prediction models in behavior and social processes using epigenetic approaches.

Other projects may focus on methodological issues that need to be addressed to advance these studies.