Epigenome-wide analysis identifies genes and pathways linked to acoustic cry variation in preterm infants.

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DOI: 10.1038/s41390-020-01172-0; PMCID: PMC7985041


Background: Preterm birth places infants at higher risk of adverse long-term behavioral and cognitive outcomes. Combining biobehavioral measures and molecular biomarkers may improve tools to predict the risk of long-term developmental delays.

Methods: The Neonatal Neurobehavior and Outcomes in Very Preterm Infants study was conducted at nine neonatal intensive care units between April 2014 and June 2016. Cries were recorded and buccal swabs collected during the neurobehavioral exam. Cry episodes were extracted and analyzed using a computer system and the data were summarized using factor analysis. Genomic DNA was extracted from buccal swabs, quantified using the Qubit Fluorometer, and aliquoted into standardized concentrations. DNA methylation was measured with the Illumina MethylationEPIC BeadArray, and an epigenome-wide association study was performed using cry factors (n = 335).

Results: Eighteen CpGs were associated with the cry factors at genome-wide significance (α = 7.08E - 09). Two CpG sites, one intergenic and one linked to gene TCF3 (important for B and T lymphocyte development), were associated with acoustic measures of cry energy. Increased methylation of TCF3 was associated with a lower energy-related cry factor. We also found that pitch (F0) and hyperpitch (F0 > 1 kHz) were associated with DNA methylation variability at 16 CpG sites.

Conclusions: Acoustic cry characteristics are related to variation in DNA methylation in preterm infants.

Impact: Preterm birth is a major public health problem and its long-term impact on health is not well understood. Cry acoustics, related to prematurity, has been linked to a variety of medical conditions. Biobehavioral measures and molecular biomarkers can improve prediction tools for long-term developmental risks of preterm birth. Variation in epigenetic modulation in preterm infants provides a potential link between preterm birth and unfavorable developmental outcomes.

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Pediatric research





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