Molecular Psychiatry recently published a long-term study that found Romanian children growing up in orphanages had shorter telomeres than those that were placed in foster care. Telomeres are regions of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of protein-coding DNA when cells divide. They do get shorter each time a chromosome replicates during cell division, but stress can cause them to shorten more rapidly, and short telomeres are associated with a number of adult diseases. The researchers focused on 136 children, half living in orphanages and half in foster care, and used samples of their DNA to measure the length of their telomeres. They found that the children with the shortest telomeres were those who had spent the greatest amount of their early childhood in the orphanage. Clinical psychiatrist Stacy Drury, of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and one of the lead authors of the study states, “It shows that being in institutional care affects children right down to the molecular level.” While child telomere biology is a relatively new field, the team does believe that children’s health can be improved if they are moved from institutional care to a family environment. The team plans to do a follow up study to investigate whether improving a child’s environment could re-grow their telomeres, and whether shorter telomeres are a cause, or an effect, of poor health.
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