The Effects of Child Abuse on the Gut Microbiome

Project: Research project

Project Details


As part of a larger study led by my mentor, Dr. Lifang Hou, of changes in gene expression in blood samples from victims of child abuse, I will research potential biomarkers of epigenetic changes in gut microbiota of children who have experienced physical abuse. To pursue this research, I will collect stool samples from diapers or rectal swabs, depending on the child’s age. The gut microbiome is emerging as another mechanism in many chronic diseases and can be altered by environmental and lifestyle factors. Extensive literature documents the involvement of the gut microbiome in neurological and health outcomes through mechanisms such as the primary mammalian stress response (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis). Thus, the microbiome could be particularly sensitive to stressful events. Furthermore, DNA methylation and microbiome changes share common pathways in response to stress and environment, such as inflammation and oxidative stress. However, the ways in which the gut microbiome can affect systemic epigenetic biomarkers remain largely unknown, and neither gut microbiota nor genome-wide DNA methylation have been studied as potential biomarkers of child abuse. I hope to take advantage of the exceptional opportunity offered by this cohort, and the Hartwell Fellowship, to add gut microbiota to this study. I propose to study the gut microbiome in children 0-4 years old with either abuse-induced or accidental injuries (n=50 each). For the first time I will examine microbiome profiles using shotgun whole genome sequencing, which compares DNA to identify microbial species and enables more accurate detection of more species/genetic diversity than other methods. Dr. Hou has extensive experience leading studies of biomarkers including gut microbiota (co-PI on NCI-funded clinical trial), and child epigenetics (MPI on NIH-funded R01). This will provide me an exceptional opportunity to develop my own research under her guidance, enabling my own future independent research on children’s health. I would be the first to examine microbiota in child abuse. Access to genome-wide DNA methylation data would also allow me to study the interplay between gut microbiota and the methylome as well. My mentoring team includes experts in microbiota, epigenetics, and epidemiology (Dr. Hou); early-life trauma and child abuse (Dr. Pierce); statistics (Dr. Lei Liu); and bioinformatic data analysis (Dr. Wei Zhang), all of whom I have worked with over the last three years. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will advance my research training in a novel direction and provide me an opportunity to develop my research on children’s health.
Effective start/end date9/1/178/31/19


  • Hartwell Foundation (AGREEMENT 8/16/17)


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