Telomere Length and Psychopathology: Specificity and Direction of Effects Within the Bucharest Early Intervention Project

Mark Wade, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Charles A. Nelson, Stacy S. Drury - Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry



Telomere length has been linked to several psychiatric conditions in children and adults. Telomere shortening is accelerated by early adversity, including maltreatment and psychosocial deprivation. These experiences also increase the risk of psychopathology in many domains. Two fundamental issues remain unresolved. The first concerns the specificity of the relations between TL and different dimensions of psychopathology; and the second relates to the direction of association between TL and psychopathology.


This study addresses these shortcomings in a two-fold manner. First, we examined the association between TL and statistically-independent general, internalizing, and externalizing psychopathology factors to determine the specificity of this relation. Second, we used a two-wave longitudinal cross-lagged model to explicitly examine the direction of the relation between telomere length and each psychopathology factor. Data were drawn from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a longitudinal study exploring the impact of severe psychosocial deprivation on child health and development (N = 195). At age 8-10 and 12-14, buccal DNA were collected and teachers and/or caregivers reported on different domains of psychopathology.


Longitudinal path analyses revealed that shorter telomere length was specifically associated with higher internalizing psychopathology at age 8-10. In contrast, at age 12-14, shorter telomere length was associated with higher general psychopathology. Most telling, internalizing psychopathology at age 8-10 predicted shorter telomere length at age 12-14, with no reciprocal effects.


Results suggest that telomere erosion may be a consequence of distress-related psychopathology rather than a selection mechanism for later psychiatric problems.