ooooooooh brain cells

Bwog Staff Writer and wannabe clinical psychologist Riya Mirchandaney nerded out over some dope women scientists at the event “Neuroscience in Action: A Conversation About Early Life Trauma and the Brain.”

On Tuesday April 24th, Trauma-Free NYC—an organization with the goal of understanding and promoting trauma-informed policies in the city of New York—provided a platform for three impressive speakers (Dr. Noble, Dr. Tottenham, and Dr. Bernard) to discuss their cutting-edge research on the subject of the psychology and neuroscience of early childhood adversity.

The first speaker was Dr. Kimberly Noble (MD and PhD!), Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Teachers College and Principal Investigator of the NEED (Neurocognition, Early Experience, and Development) Lab. Her research focuses on the way that socioeconomic factors shape brain development, specifically studying the relationship between poverty, family stress, cognitive ability, cortisol levels, and (s/o to FroSci!) the hippocampus.

The force of socioeconomic status on cognitive development is quite clear, noted Dr. Noble, as children of high SES with low early test scores improve their scores over time, whereas children of low SES with high early test scores show the opposite trend—essentially, socioeconomic status trumps early cognitive ability in predictive power for later performance. And brain structure plays a key role: Dr. Noble found that higher income is associated with greater volume of the hippocampus—a part of the limbic system linked to learning and memory.

While there are many elements of poverty that could be responsible for these cognitive and neurological effects (eg. poor nutrition, lack of educational resources, etc.), Dr. Noble is especially interested in the role of family stress, measuring stress by measuring levels of cortisol—a hormone that is released in response to stress and is associated with the “fight or flight” mechanism (side note: cortisol also has other roles, which will come up in Dr. Bernard’s talk). In her measurements of cortisol levels in hair (hair, in addition to saliva, contains large amounts of cortisol deposits) Dr. Noble found a significant correlation between lower cortisol levels (in parents and children) and higher parental education/income.

All of this research begs the question: what is the best way to intervene in this cycle? School-based and parenting interventions are probably the most popular choices, but Dr. Noble is not on a typical path: she is launching the first ever clinical trial of poverty reduction in early childhood. The study will recruit a thousand low-income mothers and involve an unconditional cash transfer for forty months, with the treatment group receiving $333/month and the control group receiving $20/month. In this way, Dr. Noble can study the causal, as opposed to merely correlative, impact of poverty on children’s cognitive, emotional, and brain development. She hopes that her study will influence public policy, informing debates about social service programs and highlighting their importance.

Dr. Nim Tottenham, Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia and Principal Investigator of the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab began her portion of the presentation by discussing the role of the amygdala and its connection to the medial prefrontal cortex during early experiences. The amygdala is compelling developmentally because it contains stress hormone receptors, is extremely plastic, and is primarily responsible for emotional attention and learning. While the amygdala is sort of a hotbed of emotion (tbh me if I were a brain structure), the medial prefrontal cortex is the dispassionate control center, incorporating information for the service of regulating amygdala arousal.

According to a comprehensive WHO mental health survey, childhood adversity contributes 29.8% of adult mental health problems. The type of childhood adversity that Dr. Tottenham’s research focuses on is emotional neglect, an “invisible” and often overlooked form of adversity that consists of failure to receive parent-child intimacy, support, and “serve and return” (that is, an appropriate responsiveness from the parent to their child’s actions). Children of neglect often end up “raising themselves,” to an extent, and this can be a significant stressor. The amygdala is highly responsive to chronic stress: its neurons increase in size and dendritic complexity (contrasting those of the hippocampus which decrease in size and complexity in response to such stress).

Among adults, the medial prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala’s reactions to fear and stress. Among children in general, this regulation is less present. Dr. Tottenham’s study involving responses to fear faces showed that children who had previously spent time in orphanages had heightened amygdala reactivity even compared to their non-neglected peers.

Alongside increases in amygdala volume, children who have experienced early institutional care have significant increases in internalizing (that is, anxiety, depression, etc.) and externalizing/behavioral problems. It’s important to note, however, that there tends to be a significant rebound behaviorally upon adoption, and individual differences are aplenty.

The final speaker was Dr. Kristin Bernard, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Stony Brook University. Dr. Bernard brought back the topic of cortisol, but in a different form. Cortisol levels have diurnal rhythms throughout the day, peaking in the morning and decreasing until before bed the values are negligible. A healthy cortisol rhythm is incredibly important, and chronic stress can mess with the ideal rhythm. When Dr. Bernard measured cortisol levels at morning and night, she found that children who were high-risk (had been in contact with CPS or foster care) had blunted cortisol levels in the morning and blunted decline throughout the day.

Instead of studying the sociodemographic risk factors like Dr. Noble, Dr. Bernard focused on the parental factors involved, and launched an intervention called ABC, or Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up. In only ten short sessions of monitored parent-child interaction with a “parent-coach” whose primary job is to say a specific positive comment about the parent’s interactions each minute, Dr. Bernard found profound effects. The behavioral targets of the intervention were to encourage the parent to nurture the baby when it is distressed, follow the child’s need with delight, and avoid frightening behaviors. Children in the ABC intervention showed more normal cortisol levels, improved cognitive flexibility and behavioral compliance even three years after the program.

Dr. Bernard wants to move this program from the lab to the community, which is in progress through an initiative called “Power of Two.”

After the presentations, an audience member asked a question about how to apply the speakers’ research to policy. It’s a tough question, especially given the current political situation, but research cannot afford to exist in a vacuum. “Human development is very slow, and it’s outpaced by election cycles,” said Dr. Tottenham.

Image via Flickr