A new research project, involving psychologists from the University of Bath, will examine the association between early life stress and our long-term health.

Early life stress (ELS) is a widely prevalent phenomenon affecting up to 75% of pregnant women (and therefore their babies) and around 50% of young children. Most commonly, the term refers to severe stress caused by abuse, both physical and emotional, neglect and parental loss, including death or separation. Other forms of early life stress can include accidents, physical illness, surgeries, natural disasters, and war or terrorism-related events.

It has been suggested that the accumulated effects of stress hormones during child development can lead to both mental and physical issues, potentially resulting in major diseases in later life. Previous research has also looked at the links between ELS and future job losses, as well as future abuse, violence and bullying.

Now the researchers, including Dr Esther Walton of Bath’s Addiction & Mental Health Group whose research looks at the links between DNA and our mental health, want to understand more about these associations in order to develop new treatments or therapies among individuals at high-risk of developing more than one chronic disease. The EarlyCause project, which is funded by EU Horizon 2020 and will be led by colleagues at the University of Barcelona, will study the hypothesis that ELS, a well-established risk factor for depressive, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders individually, is also a cause of multi-morbidity in these disorders.

The project is coordinated by Karim Lekadir director of the Artificial Intelligence in Medicine Lab at the UB, also coordinator of the project euCanSHare H2020, a platform developing a data sharing and analytics platform for customized medicine research in cardiology.

Dr Esther Walton from the University's Department of Psychology explained: “We are very excited to be part of this multi-disciplinary project. By using state-of-the-art causal inference methods and data from several European population studies, we will shed light into how early life stress impacts our health in later life.”

The project comprises researchers from across 14 European institutions including: the University of Barcelona, the European Bioinformatics Institute (United Kingdom), Erasmus University Medical Centre Rotterdam (Netherlands), University of Zurich (Switzerland), King’s College London (United Kingdom), the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, Spain), Centre Européen de Recherche en Biologie et Médicine (France), University of Oulu (Finland), Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico – Fatebenefratelli, (Italy), University of Bath (United Kingdom), VU Amsterdam Medical Centre (Netherlands), Empirica GmbH (Germany), Combinostics Oy (Finland) and Pompeu Fabra University (Spain).