Harsh Parenting Predicts Novel HPA Receptor Gene Methylation and NR3C1 Methylation Predicts Cortisol Daily Slope in Middle Childhood

Candace R. Lewis, Reagan S. Breitenstein, Adrienne Henderson, Hayley A. Sowards, Ignazio S. Piras, Matthew J. Huentelman, Leah D. Doane, Kathryn Lemery-Chalfant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Adverse experiences in childhood are associated with altered hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis function and negative health outcomes throughout life. It is now commonly accepted that abuse and neglect can alter epigenetic regulation of HPA genes. Accumulated evidence suggests harsh parenting practices such as spanking are also strong predictors of negative health outcomes. We predicted harsh parenting at 2.5 years old would predict HPA gene DNA methylation similarly to abuse and neglect, and cortisol output at 8.5 years old. Saliva samples were collected three times a day across 3 days to estimate cortisol diurnal slopes. Methylation was quantified using the Illumina Infinium MethylationEPIC array BeadChip (850 K) with DNA collected from buccal cells. We used principal components analysis to compute a summary statistic for CpG sites across candidate genes. The first and second components were used as outcome variables in mixed linear regression analyses with harsh parenting as a predictor variable. We found harsh parenting significantly predicted methylation of several HPA axis genes, including novel gene associations with AVPRB1, CRHR1, CRHR2, and MC2R (FDR corrected p < 0.05). Further, we found NR3C1 methylation predicted a steeper diurnal cortisol slope. Our results extend the current literature by demonstrating harsh parenting may influence DNA methylation similarly to more extreme early life experiences such as abuse and neglect. Further, we show NR3C1 methylation is associated with diurnal HPA function. Elucidating the molecular consequences of harsh parenting on health can inform best parenting practices and provide potential treatment targets for common complex disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)783-793
Number of pages11
JournalCellular and Molecular Neurobiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Childhood
  • Corporal punishment
  • Cortisol
  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetics
  • HPA
  • Harsh parenting
  • NR3C1
  • Spanking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cell Biology


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