Skip to navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer

Approved Research

Developmental Origins: exploring the Nature-Nurture Interplay

Principal Investigator: Professor Stephanie von Hinke
Approved Research ID: 74002
Approval date: May 17th 2022

Lay summary

It is increasingly acknowledged that both the prenatal and postnatal environment that one is exposed around birth affects individuals' health and well-being in older age. This project explores this relationship in more detail. First, we focus on the importance of different environments, such as early life nutrition and pollution, allowing us to quantify their role for later life health and well-being. Our focus is on both health and economic outcomes, since inequalities in these have been shown to be deeply intertwined and interdependent. For example, we will investigate cardiovascular disease, mental health, BMI as well as education. Second, we will investigate how individuals' genetic predisposition for these outcomes interacts with the environmental circumstances to generate inequalities in health and well-being in older age. This will allow us to examine whether, e.g., one's genetic predisposition can "protect" against adverse early life conditions, or vice versa, whether improvements in early life circumstances can overcome genetic disadvantage. In doing so, we will combine methods and ideas from the medical and social sciences.

The project is funded by an ERC starting grant that takes approximately 60 months (however, it says 36 months below, since the UK Biobank system indicates that is the maximum duration). Our analyses will typically use all available observations in the UK Biobank that (i) are of European descent, (ii) have been successfully genotyped, (iii) have measures of the outcomes under investigation, and/or where we observe location of birth.

The research has to potential to have a large public health impact. Indeed, showing the importance of the early life environment for one's health in older age has profound implications for policy. It would suggest that the optimal time to intervene to improve children's life chances is prenatally and in early childhood. In addition to academic papers, we will write policy briefings based on our work to disseminate our findings to non-academic and policy audiences.

Current scope (project 74002):

The "Developmental Origins of Health and Disease" (DOHaD) hypothesis states that insults in early life can affect individuals' health and well-being in older age. This project builds on the DOHaD hypothesis in two main ways.

(1) We will investigate the impact of early life circumstances on later life outcomes.

(2) We will go beyond the "nature versus nurture" debate and investigate how individuals' genes ("nature") interacts with the early life environments ("nurture") in creating inequalities in health and well-being.

Early life circumstances we will explore include four broad types: nutritional environments (e.g. wartime rationing), toxicological environments (e.g. pollution), health environments (e.g. disease, infant mortality), and economic environments (e.g. unemployment), measured at birth or early childhood. Some of these vary only with time (e.g. rationing), whilst others vary with time and geographical location (e.g. infant mortality). For the latter, we will digitize these from historical records and merge them into the UKB using individuals' location (i.e., eastings, northings) of birth. Since inequalities in health and economic outcomes are deeply intertwined and interdependent, we will explore effects of early life circumstances on both; particularly blood pressure, mental health, cardiovascular disease, respiratory health, height, BMI, diet, education, cognition, non-cognitive skills, and employment.

Additional (new) scope (project 41382):

We examine how Genes and the Environment (GxE) interact to generate inequalities in education and health over the life course. The project consists of two related subprojects:

(1) Are children who grow up in advantaged environments better able to reach their genetically conditioned potential in educational attainment and (non-)cognitive skills?

(2) Does an advantaged environment cushion genetic susceptibility to risky health behaviours?

Both hypotheses propose a GxE interplay that influences the transition from early childhood to adulthood in periods that are critical to the generation of inequalities.