Socialisation and psychological wellbeing
: Modelling the impact of the prenatal maternal social environment on offspring mental health outcomes in middle childhood

  • Eric Spikol

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


It is well accepted that aspects of the prenatal environment can affect the foetal genome and offspring health/mental health outcomes. Previous research has described these effects manifesting as specific epigenetic adaptations to harsh/deficit environments that become maladaptive in a normative environment. It was hypothesised that the prenatal maternal social environment constituted a deficit environment for a mother in social isolation, that epigenetic adaptations would ‘prime’ the offspring genome with adaptations for survival in an isolation environment, that offspring primed for a specific social environment would suffer distress in a ‘mismatched’ environment, that offspring primed for social isolation would be more resilient to the effects of isolation than other children and, that this distress would manifest as psychopathology symptomology. Prenatal maternal and child data were sourced from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC, N=15,645) to test these hypotheses. The prenatal maternal social environment was modelled as 5-dimension construct with the maternal population comprised of 3 latent socialisation profiles: High, Baseline, and Low. The child social environment was modelled as a unidimensional construct of Socialisation, and psychopathology in middle childhood was longitudinally modelled as 4 distinct trajectories: High-Stable, High-Decreasing, Low-Stable, and Low-Increasing. Prenatal socialisation and child socialisation influenced the likelihood of psychopathology trajectory membership, indicating low distress for environmental match, high distress for mismatch, and a resilience effect in offspring primed for isolation. These results highlight the importance of socialisation during pregnancy for both mother and child and could lead to increased clinical/community awareness of prenatal isolation. Findings here re-contextualised psychopathology symptomology as partially environmentally dependent, suggesting a continuum of inborn adaptive/maladaptive behaviour which influenced psychopathology risk. Future work will focus on replication in other large populations, exploring this effect with specific disorders, and exploration using genomic data.
Date of AwardSept 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJamie Murphy (Supervisor) & Donal Mc Ateer (Supervisor)


  • Epigenetics
  • Social isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Psychopathology
  • Socialisation
  • Prenatal wellbeing
  • Mental health
  • Behavioural epigenetics

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