Telomeres are the protective protein complexes located at the end of a chromosome that keep the structure intact. Genomic testing has shown that patients with age-related diseases as well as obesity, diabetes, and cancer have shorter telomere length (TL) than controls. Other studies have noted that exposure to psychological stress and chronic depression also leads to shorter TL in adult patients. But what is the connection between TL in children and the likelihood of developing behavioral problems? And does prenatal and/or postnatal depression in the mother have any effect on TL in their children?
To answer these questions, a research team from the University of California San Francisco investigated the effect of maternal depression on the risk for future behavior problems in children by focusing on TL in the children. Low-income Latino children (age range=4 y-5 y) were the targeted participant pool because they are at high risk of developing behavioral disorders. TL was measured in children and their mothers via DNA genomic testing performed at 2 San Francisco‒area hospitals for a total of 203 samples.
Maternal levels of depression were assessed prenatally, at 4 to 6 weeks postpartum, and annually throughout the follow-up period until the child turned 5 years old. Measures of depression were the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, and the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview. Child psychiatric problems were assessed when the children were 3, 4, and 5 years old via an age-appropriate version of the Child Behavior Checklist. All interviews were conducted in the dominant language spoken and understood by the participants, either English or Spanish.
Although the researchers were interested in 2 relationships—the effect of maternal depression on TL in children and the connection between TL in children and their likelihood of developing behavior problems—the sample size of clinically depressed mothers was too small to fully address the first concern. The trend for this sample, however, did note shorter TL in the children of clinically depressed mothers.
Regarding the question of behavior problems and telomere length in children, however, the relationship was startling. Children who had tested positive for oppositional defiant behavior at 3, 4, or 5 years had shorter TL than those without by  approximately 450 base pairs (P<0.01). Other predictors for shorter TL in the 4- and 5-year-olds included shorter maternal TL and younger paternal age at the child’s birth.
Although this study is the first to measure the effect of maternal clinical depression on TL length in children and the first to connect oppositional defiant behavior with shorter TL in the preschool years, its preliminary findings reinforce the idea that practitioners need to take seriously any depressive symptoms noted in their pregnant patients. The psychological health of the next generation may depend on it.*
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Reference
Wojcicki JM, Heyman MB, Elwan D, et al. Telomere length is associated with oppositional defiant behavior and maternal clinical depression in Latino preschool children. Transl Psychiatry. 2015 Jun 16;5:e581.


*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.