Do You Know How Old Your Kids Really Are?

Researchers hope a new "epigenetic clock" that can pinpoint a child's developmental age will help identify potential problems early on.


How old are you?

Your DNA might say something different from your birth certificate, and a mismatch could help doctors spot childhood developmental disorders sooner.

As we age, small chemical changes in our DNA change how our genes are expressed. These ‘epigenetic changes’ can usually be used to accurately predict a person’s age. But, if epigenetic and ‘true’ ages don’t match, this can suggest a number of age-related diseases.

Until recently, these models only worked for adults. Kids, with their rapid periods of growth and development, didn’t fit the adult patterns.

So researchers at BC Children’s Hospital, the University of British Columbia, and the University of California, Los Angeles set about developing an epigenetic clock to measure developmental age in children.

Using DNA from 1,032 healthy individuals aged 0 to 20, the researchers found 94 genetic sites that can predict age. Dubbed the Pediatric-Buccal-Epigenetic (PedBE) clock, the combination of changes at these sites can pinpoint age to within four months with just a cheek swab.

Of course, most parents have a pretty good idea of how old their kids are. The benefit of the PedBE clock is that it tells you developmental age. Just like in adults, if the actual and developmental ages don’t match, it’s a sign that something could be wrong.

To confirm this, the researchers compared the results to a small sample of children with diagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These kids had a higher ‘PedBE age’ than expected, suggesting that the tool could be used to screen for ASD.

“The fact that our pediatric clock was able to distinguish between typically developing children and those with autism in this small experiment demonstrates the powerful potential of this tool,” says Michael Kobor, an investigator at BC Children’s Hospital and the study’s senior author. “Although more research is needed to confirm this, these results show that the PedBE clock could be an important factor in evaluating how children develop.”

It’s still in its early stages, but the team has already shared the tool so other researchers can try it right away.

In time, this could help clinicians identify why some children don’t meet early milestones and potentially diagnose developmental disorders. As first author Lisa McEwen explains, this would enable doctors and pediatricians to intervene sooner in a child’s life leading to better outcomes for kids.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise