Hello world!

Tuomas is a newish doctoral student in the Developmental Psychology Research Group. His research interests include genetic and environmental prenatal risk factors of mental health problems and in prenatal epigenetic programming.

At the moment Tuomas is practicing to work with genetic and epigenetic data  and learning some new topics starting from the very basics. Previously Tuomas has completed a Master of Science in “paper and pen” kind of mathematics, and prior to starting his doctoral studies, Tuomas also worked as a research assistant in the Itu and Predo projects.

Tuomas­­­ likes to drink a lot of coffee. His hobbies include yoga, walking and jogging in nature, sauna, swimming, reading and good television shows.

Defense: Growth after preterm birth and cognitive functioning and mental health in adulthood

Children who are born preterm – before 37 weeks of gestation – are more likely than term-born peers to have problems in cognitive functioning and may experience more mental health problems. Then again, most preterm infants grow up to be just as happy, healthy and smart as any of their peers. Among those preterm infants, who is at risk?

Cover art: Joel Sammallahti

Sara Sammallahti showed in her thesis that early growth during the first months of life after preterm birth predicts adult cognitive functioning. Those preterm participants who grew well during early infancy performed better in neuropsychological tests in adulthood, received higher grades in school and were less likely to have been given special education. After taking into account many potential confounders, it seemed that this association was not explained merely by prenatal factors.

Higher intakes of energy, human milk, and macronutrients were also associated with better performance in adulthood. However, the associations between these nutritional intakes and long-term cognitive outcomes seemed largely driven by early morbidity: early illnesses can interfere with nutrition, and those infants who were severely ill as neonates were also more likely to experience neurodevelopmental problems later on.

Interestingly, mental health outcomes were not associated with early growth. This could suggest that the mechanisms that underlie the increased risk of mental health problems among preterm individuals are different from the mechanisms that explain why preterm individuals have, on average, more cognitive problems than term-born peers do.

Taken together, the results encourage further research into how we could best support the optimal growth and development of preterm neonates – what we do during those precious early weeks and months may  have life-long consequences.

Sara Sammallahti, M.Psych., B.Med., will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled “Growth after preterm birth and cognitive functioning and mental health in adulthood” (“Keskosten kasvu ja aikuisiän kognitiiviset taidot ja mielenterveys”) at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, on 7th April 2018 at 10:00. The public examination will take place at the Seth Wichmann Hall, Naistenklinikka, Haartmaninkatu 2. Professor Ken Ong from the University of Cambridge will serve as the opponent. Academy professor Katri Räikkönen, adjunct professor Eero Kajantie, and Professor Sture Andersson have supervised the thesis. The dissertation will also be available in electronic form through the E-thesis service 10 days before the defense. Contact details: sara.sammallahti@helsinki.fi .

“Hei y’all!”

If you have not yet heard the distinctive southern drawl of the newest member of the DEPSY research group, you soon likely will. Rachel Robinson, originally from Texas, USA, recently joined the DEPSY research group as a doctoral student and will be focusing on the RECAP Preterm project.


Rachel moved to Finland in 2013 to pursue an international Master’s degree in Public Health. When asked why she chose Finland, Rachel highlights the fact that she wanted to pursue her MPH in a program with an international focus and in a country with a different health care system than in the USA. During and after completing her MPH studies at the University of Eastern Finland, she worked at the Työterveyslaitos (Finnish Institute for Occupational Health) Cochrane Work Review group, writing Cochrane systematic reviews on occupational health interventions. Since 2015, she worked for the European Chemicals Agency, predominately tasked with developing the scientific and regulatory knowledge management wiki and helping administer the chemical substance evaluation process in collaboration with the EU member states.

Prior to moving to Finland, Rachel completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Health, with an emphasis in community health from Texas Tech University. Her desire to return to health research with an emphasis on early developmental factors stems largely from her time in Malawi with a Community Based Orphan and Widow Care agency for people impacted by HIV/AIDs, which included mobile medical clinic coordination, crisis nursery infant care, and international volunteer coordination. These experiences have fueled her passion for public health research and identifying interventions, which can improve people’s health and overall quality of life.

Rachel has a Finnish partner, two young stepdaughters (aged 6 & 9), and a dachshund. She enjoys reading a captivating book while sipping a strong cup of coffee, vintage furniture upholstery, Finnish summer cottage life and sauna, board games, and a good conversation over a delicious meal.

The last placenta

I’ve heard people say doing epidemiological studies must be easy, compared to lab work – you just sit on your computer and run analyses! Well, there’s a fair share of looking at the screen involved, too, but before that, you actually have to get the data. And looking at the numbers on the screen, you sort of forget all the endless hours of work by so many people that went into getting those numbers there.

Lately, we celebrated something of a milestone for the data collection phase of the ITU project: our last placenta was born. Since 2012, on every day of the year, one of the nurses, doctors, psychologists or research assistants involved in ITU has been on call. Whenever one of the moms who participate in ITU gave birth, the person on call would get to one of the maternity hospitals in the metropolitan area to take samples of the placenta. After five years and more than 500 placentas, we were quite a happy bunch, celebrating the end of this phase together.

Research nurse Eija, professor Katri, PhD student Elina, research assistant Kristiina, PhD student Sara and perinatologist Sanna celebrating the end of the placental data collection phase in ITU.

Now, of course, begins another exciting phase: boiling all that work down to numbers, and then, to new information about well-being during pregnancy, and the long-term effects of prenatal factors on the developing child. First, lab time, and then – computer time!

/Sara Sammallahti

Maternal depressive symptoms during and after pregnancy are associated with offspring ADHD symptoms during early childhood

A new study by Wolford et al. (2017) found that maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy are highly stable and mothers with high depressive symptoms at the beginning of pregnancy have high depressive symptoms throughout pregnancy. Children of mothers with consistently high depressive symptoms during pregnancy had more ADHD symptoms and were almost three times more likely to have clinically significant ADHD symptoms at 3 to 6 years of age. In addition, maternal depressive symptoms after pregnancy added to the prenatal effect. Children whose mothers had high depressive symptoms both during and after pregnancy had the highest ADHD symptoms. The study was able to show that none of these associations were accounted for by a number of perinatal, maternal and neonatal characteristics, including maternal ADHD symptoms.

The study emphasizes the need to recognize the mothers at risk of depressive symptoms early in pregnancy and the need to study interventions for depression during pregnancy.

The study has been reported on in Helsingin Sanomat https://www.hs.fi/hyvinvointi/art-2000005520723.html (in Finnish) and in Medical News Today https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320538.php (in English).

/Elina Wolford

Smart kids, sedentary adults?

In a cohort of Finnish 25-year-olds, those who had higher cognitive ability in early childhood were more inactive physically in young adulthood, as shown in a study by Kumpulainen et al., published in Health Psychology.

Physical inactivity means both low levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (such as brisk walking and running), and high levels of sedentary behaviours (such as reading, TV viewing and computer use, while sitting or laying down). Both of these factors independently predict adverse health-related outcomes. One proposed factor underlying individual differences in health related behaviours, including physical activity, is early life cognitive ability. In our study, we examined whether cognitive ability in childhood predicts physical activity and inactivity in young adulthood.

Photo by UBC Learning Commons

The study sample comprised 500 participants of the Arvo Ylppö Longitudinal Study (AYLS). In childhood, at an average of 4.5 years, the participants underwent neurocognitive testing. In adulthood, at the mean age of 25 years, they wore a wrist-worn accelerometer for a week, to provide data on physical activity. They also self-reported their level of physical activity during occupational and leisure-time.

Results showed that in young adulthood, higher cognitive ability in childhood was associated with more sedentary time and less time spent in light physical activity such as slow walking. It was also associated with lower intensity of daily physical activity, and decreased odds of having a physically demanding job in young adulthood.

It may seem surprising that those children with high cognitive ability were physically less active in adulthood: in many cases, high cognitive ability is associated with positive health-related behaviours. In our study, however, the associations seemed (partly) explained by differences in the educational level that the participants had attained or were pursuing. This would suggest that lower physical activity and more time spent in sedentary behaviours may reflect the lower strenuousness of daily activities in those with a higher educational level.

Physical activity patterns are moderately stable across adulthood and physical inactivity tends to increase with age. Increasing awareness of the benefits of physical activity-related health promotion should be targeted at young adults whose daily activities include a lot of sedentary behaviours.

Stress early in life interacts with FKBP5 gene to predict physical health problems in adulthood: findings from Helsinki Birth Cohort Study

In one of our previous posts, we wrote about the Helsinki Birth Cohort – one of the cohorts Developmental Psychology group is working with – which includes information about men and women who were separated temporarily from their biological parents in childhood due to evacuation to Sweden or Denmark from the strains of World War II. In that post, we shared findings from the study by Jari Lahti and colleagues, who found that variants of the FKBP5 gene interacted with this objectively recorded early life stress in predicting moderate to severe levels of depressive symptoms in midlife.

Recently, Anna Suarez and colleagues extended these findings further in a paper published in Psychosomatic Medicine journal by exploring whether FKBP5 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) interacted with early separation from parents on physical health, namely on type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and quantitative glycemic traits.

Children evacuated during World War II (photo: SA Archive)

FKBP5 gene plays an important role in regulating our stress reaction system – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Dozens of studies have found that variants, or SNPs, of this gene interact with stress experienced early in life (e.g. neglect, abuse, or separation from parents) in predicting mental health problems in adulthood. This means that people who share the same stressful childhood experience but have different versions of FKBP5 gene, have different probability of developing psychiatric problems that are related to dysregulation of the HPA axis.

The study by Suarez and colleagues shows a similar effect for physical health: those who were separated from parents during war and had at least one “vulnerable” copy of the FKBP5 SNPs (rs1360780, rs9394309, rs9470080) had higher levels of blood glucose when measured with oral glucose tolerance test. While there was no significant interaction of FKBP5 and early life stress on type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, high levels of glucose predict increased risk of developing these conditions in the future. As Depsy continues to follow-up the participants from Helsinki Birth Cohort, future studies will tell if the increased risk in the genetically vulnerable individuals exposed to early life stress will translate into manifest disease as the participants of the cohort age.

Awareness of vulnerability to certain conditions based on genetic makeup and childhood experience pose a great potential for timely prediction and prevention.

/ Anna Suarez

Breastfeeding predicts higher cognitive ability in old age

Being breastfed in infancy predicts higher cognitive ability in young adulthood and old age, and longer durations of breastfeeding may also be beneficial for change in cognitive ability over almost five decades, as reported in a study recently published in Psychological Medicine.

In the study Rantalainen and others found that in 931 men from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study, those breastfed for any period of time was had higher cognitive ability scores at 20 and 68 years of age than those not breastfed, and the advantages were more pronounced the longer the duration of breastfeeding. These benefits were observed in all tested domains of cognition, including verbal, arithmetic and visuospatial reasoning, as well as the total cognitive ability score based on the three domains. Also, being breastfed for more than three months predicted positive aging-related change in verbal reasoning ability between 20 and 68 years of age.

At least two main mechanisms may account for the neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has been proposed to support sensitive interactions with the mother, promoting the development of the infant’s self-regulation capabilities. Alternatively, breast milk may contribute to the infant’s neural development, as it is an ideal source of essential fatty acids.

Numerous studies have reported that those breastfed in infancy have a higher cognitive ability in childhood and adolescence than those not breastfed, and a handful of studies have found a similar advantage in adulthood. The new finding suggests that the benefits of breastfeeding can persist to old age, especially with longer durations, and potentially contribute to the accumulation of skills and experience related to verbal ability over the lifespan.

/ Ville Rantalainen

Depsy group represented in Zurich congress

Researchers in the Developmental psychology research group regularly attend international conferences to present our work and to connect with other researchers from around the world. A week ago three of our researchers, Kati Heinonen, Elena Toffol, and Elina Wolford, attended the 47th Annual conference of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology in Zurich, Switzerland. The theme of the conference this year was “Genes and Hormones. Key factors of wellbeing throughout the life span.”

The conference was a busy three days of cutting-edge scientific presentations and great conversations with old and new friends and collaborators.

The Depsy group had four presentations in the conference from the Prediction and Prevention of Pre-eclampsia and Intrauterine Growth Restriction (Predo) Study. On the first day, Kati Heinonen and Elena Toffol presented their research in a poster session. Kati presented the results on the association between maternal vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Earlier studies have found an association between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in non-pregnant populations, however, less is known of what happens during pregnancy. She found that increasing levels of depressive symptoms were associated with decreasing levels of vitamin D across pregnancy. Maternal vitamin D levels are important not only for the pregnant woman herself, but also for the developing fetus whose only source of vitamin D is the mother.

Elena presented results using a novel approach to the study of health and disease conditions and their biomarkers, called metabolomics. The approach was used in the Predo study to target the metabolic status of mothers across pregnancy, and how it possibly influences their child’s development. She examined if maternal levels of fatty acids during pregnancy, and their change across pregnancy, have an influence on the child temperament characteristics at 6 months of age. Indeed, there seem to be some suggestive associations, which however will need to be confirmed in larger samples.

On the second day of the conference, Elina Wolford presented Anna Suarez Figueiredo’s work in a symposium titled “Stress and cellular aging”. Anna’s research uses a novel epigenetic gestational age biomarker, which measures an infant’s epigenetic gestational age in relation to chronological gestational age. Anna found that children of mothers with a history of depression or depressive symptoms during pregnancy display epigenetic gestational age immaturity at birth, which further predicts higher total and internalizing problems in early childhood in boys. Epigenetic gestational age partially mediates associations between maternal depression and childhood psychiatric problems. The second day of the conference ended with the conference dinner, which was held at Quai 61, a restaurant on the shore of lake Zurich.

View from Quai 61

On the third and final day of the conference, Elina Wolford presented her own research on the association between prenatal synthetic glucocorticoid exposure and child developmental milestones and psychiatric symptoms in a symposium titled “The impact of prenatal and postnatal stress in childhood on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function, proinflammatory markers, and mental health in adolescence and adulthood”. Elina’s work shows that both preterm and term children, who have been exposed to synthetic glucocorticoids prenatally, have lower scores on measures of age-appropriate developmental milestones and more psychiatric symptoms. These findings suggest the need to extend clinical follow-up of child neurobehavioral development beyond the preterm group to the group exposed to prenatal synthetic glucocorticoids and born at term.

The ISPNE conference this year was very fruitful and inspiring and we can’t wait to go back to the beautiful city of Zurich. What a lovely venue for a conference!

/Elina Wolford

Recent findings from big collaboration projects

We are continuously involved in large international collaborative projects. This year, as before, our group has contributed to several genome-wide association studies (GWAS), projects that demand a huge number of participants to identify variation in the genome that is associated with a specific trait.

Photo: Kevin Simmons

One of these studies was just published in Nature Communications (Zillikens et al. (2017). Large meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies identifies five loci for lean body mass). It was found that lean body mass (which consists mainly of muscle mass), was associated with a number of single-nucleotide polymorphisms. These associations were discovered in a sample of 38,292 people from 20 cohorts, and subjects from 33 additional studies were used to replicate the findings (with a total sample of 63,475 people).

Another GWAS meta-analysis was recently published in Molecular Psychiatry (Trampush et al (2017). GWAS meta-analysis reveals novel loci and genetic correlates for general cognitive function: a report from the COGENT consortium). In this study, general cognitive functioning was found to be associated with new loci, based on data from 24 cohorts (enrolling 35,298 individuals). However, the effects of any individual single-nucleotide polymorphisms were very small: in other words, small differences in the genome each accounted only for a very small portion of the variance in cognitive performance – as tends to be the case with psychological traits.

/Sara Sammallahti