PhD opportunity in Child and Adolescent Health at the School of Medicine

19 Nov 2014

Biology, behaviour and social determinants - dissecting the link between pubertal timing and mental health – what roles do environment and genetics play?

Supervisors: Candace Currie and Silvia Paracchini

Early puberty is associated with poor mental health outcomes in adolescence. This can range from decreased mental wellbeing to psychopathology, especially amongst females.

To date, this association has been explained as a consequence of either a ‘mismatch’ between physical and psychosocial development, or social engagement with older peers. Research in this area has, however, largely neglected to examine the extent to which mental health issues precede premature pubertal development.

Early puberty is a complex trait likely to be the results of multiple interactions between environmental and genetic factors. The genetic component is expected to be substantial and specific genes involved in this process have already been identified using genome-wide association studies. There is also evidence that early pubertal development is an adaptive response to early environmental adversity, which includes factors such as familial discordance, hostile or neglectful parenting and low resource stability including family economic hardship. These social determinants of early puberty are also known to be related to behavioural problems and psychosocial difficulties. The inter-related nature of these outcomes and their timing need further exploration.

The project will focus on whether individuals' pubertal trajectory is associated with their psychological health in early childhood as well as later in adolescence. Controlling for environmental determinants, the project will explore whether genetic markers of early puberty are associated with a broader phenotype of accelerated development.

This proposal addresses the “nature v nurture” debate building on a solid hypothesis and using suitable and well-powered datasets. You will investigate the complex nature of both environmental and genetic component using two large and unique datasets which will complement each other: Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a large epidemiological cohort for which biological, social, behavioural, genetic and cognitive( N > 7000); and also data from the HBSC Survey which is cross-sectional, multi-country data on pubertal timing and health among adolescents repeated every four years (N = > 50,000 female respondents per survey with data on menarcheal timing). The aim is to both establish determinants of early puberty and to investigate whether the same factors might lead to a broader phenotype associated with accelerated development which encompasses behaviour, cognition, mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.

This project will fill a significant gap in the field with the potential to develop tools to improve the well-being of young people.

The supervisory team will include Professor Candace Currie , Director of the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit and Dr Silvia Paracchini support from Dr Ross Whitehead – providing cross-disciplinary perspectives in the area of adolescent development. You will work as part of a large team receiving training on state-of-the-art analytical approaches.

You should have strong quantitative skills to work with a large complex data set, a first degree in relevant biological or social sciences and a fascination with adolescent health and development.

Resources and key references

Paracchini, S. 2011 Dissection of genetic associations with language-related traits in population-based cohort. In : Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders. 3, 4, p. 365-373

Currie C, Ahluwalia N, Godeau E et al. 2012 Is obesity at individual and national level associated
with lower age at menarche? Evidence from 34 countries in the Health Behaviour in School aged Children Study. J Adolesc Health. 50:621-6

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For more information on ALSPAC: and on HBSC

Established in 2000, CAHRU is dedicated to improving understanding of child and adolescent health in Scotland.

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