Understanding Root Causes of Asthma. Perinatal Environmental Exposures and Epigenetic Regulation

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Abstract

A common explanation for the origins and rising prevalence of asthma is that they involve complex interactions between hereditary predispositions and environmental exposures that are incompletely understood. Yet, emerging evidence substantiates the paradigm that environmental exposures prenatally and during very early childhood induce epigenetic alterations that affect the expression of asthma genes and, thereby, asthma itself. Here, we review much of the key evidence supporting this paradigm. First, we describe evidence that the prenatal and early postnatal periods are key time windows of susceptibility to environmental exposures that may trigger asthma. Second, we explain how environmental epigenetic regulation may explain the immunopathology underlying asthma. Third, we outline specific evidence that environmental exposures induce epigenetic regulation, both from animal models and robust human epidemiological research. Finally, we review some emerging topics, including the importance of coexposures, population divergence, and how epigenetic regulation may change over time. Despite all the inherent complexity, great progress has been made toward understanding what we still consider reversible asthma risk factors. These, in time, may impact patient care.

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