Skip to main content


King, Katherine E.; Kane, Jennifer Buher; Scarbrough, Peter; Hoyo, Cathrine; & Murphy, Susan K. (2016). Neighborhood and Family Environment of Expectant Mothers May Influence Prenatal Programming of Adult Cancer Risk: Discussion and an Illustrative DNA Methylation Example. Biodemography and Social Biology, 62(1), 87-104. PMCID: PMC4851425


Childhood stressors including physical abuse predict adult cancer risk. Prior research portrays this finding as an indirect mechanism that operates through coping behaviors, including adult smoking, or through increased toxic exposures during childhood. Little is known about potential direct causal mechanisms between early-life stressors and adult cancer. Because prenatal conditions can affect gene expression by altering DNA methylation, with implications for adult health, we hypothesize that maternal stress may program methylation of cancer-linked genes during gametogenesis. To illustrate this hypothesis, we related maternal social resources to methylation at the imprinted MEG3 differentially methylated regulatory region, which has been linked to multiple cancer types. Mothers (n = 489) from a diverse birth cohort (Durham, North Carolina) provided newborns' cord blood and completed a questionnaire. Newborns of currently married mothers showed lower (-0.321 SD, p < .05) methylation compared to newborns of never-married mothers, who did not differ from newborns whose mothers were cohabiting and others (adjusted for demographics). MEG3 DNA methylation levels were also lower when maternal grandmothers co-resided before pregnancy (-0.314 SD, p < .05). A 1-SD increase in prenatal neighborhood disadvantage also predicted higher methylation (-0.137 SD, p < .05). In conclusion, we found that maternal social resources may result in differential methylation of MEG3, which demonstrates a potential partial mechanism priming socially disadvantaged newborns for later risk of some cancers.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Biodemography and Social Biology


King, Katherine E.
Kane, Jennifer Buher
Scarbrough, Peter
Hoyo, Cathrine
Murphy, Susan K.