Brain-Behavioral Development

An enormous range of activities could fall under this heading. In this area we seek to focus on the role of experience in shaping physiology; physiology which in turn drives development and leads to behavioral outcomes. Our initial efforts focus on how early maternal (and possibly paternal) contact influences brain development and the consequent emotional development.

The importance of early socio-emotional relationships in facilitating healthy brain-behavioral development has recently been brought to our attention by what happens when otherwise normal, healthy infants are deprived of such relationships. For example, although children reared in institutionalized orphanages are deprived of a range of experiences (e.g., linguistic input; the opportunity to move and explore the environment), what most stands out in terms of their rearing is the profound deprivation from human contact; these children were not talked to, picked up, hugged, kissed, played with, and so forth. Not all such children suffer profound social-emotional disturbances as a result of this deprivation, although as a rule, those who escape the ravages of this deprivation are adopted within the first two years of life, and often before the end of the first year of life. (It should be noted, of course, that the number of such children studied so far is small, and thus these findings may change as more children are studied.) Based on the data we have, we can conclude that there appears to be a critical period for fostering healthy socio-emotional development.

The conclusion that the first years of life are important in fostering healthy socio-emotional development is not new, nor is this conclusion solely based on studies of deprivation. For example, Sroufe and colleagues at the University of Minnesota have been following children born into poverty and studied since birth. The oldest children in this sample are now in their twenties, and a number are having children of their own. From this work it has been demonstrated that children who are reared by loving, consistent, sensitive caretakers disproportionately possess social and cognitive skills in childhood that are superior to that of children who did not benefit from such caretaking. Thus, children in the former group are more mature in their social relationships, perform better on cognitive tasks, and perform better in school; as adolescents, they also engage in more mature intimate relationships.

Although these observations, and others like them, have proven to be invaluable in shaping our understanding of the importance of the first years of life, they are descriptive and not mechanistic; specifically, they do not tell us how early socio-emotional relationships affect the physiology of brain development and thus “get into the brain”, i.e. are incorporated into the structure of the brain. Without such knowledge our models of development will be incomplete in three regards. First, if we hope to provide a complete understanding of why these early relationships are important, we need to understand what effects they exert on the brain, their time frame for doing so, and whether there is a critical period for doing so. Second, if we hope to develop interventions that will ameliorate the effects of early socio-emotional deprivation, then we must be precise about how such deprivation affects the developing brain. Finally, if we wish evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions, we need to develop tools that are sensitive to the effects these interventions exert on both brain and behavior.

Based on these observations, we have identified a handful of questions that could profitably be studied by the core group.

What is the developmental course of the early affiliative relationship the infant has with its primary caretaker, and what effect is exerted on brain structure and function by exposure to this relationship?

How do the responses to these early experiences serve as scaffolding for future learning, both cognitively and emotionally?

What is the range of normative environmental stimulation and support of the infant that provides a sufficient basis for such brain/behavioral development?

Overall, it is our intent to study these issues by adopting a multidisciplinary approach that brings to the fore expertise in developmental psychology, developmental neurobiology, and developmental/behavioral pediatrics. Importantly, our success in this endeavor will likely influence our ability to tackle other problems of early experience. For example, we know little about the effects of early stress, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to teratogens on later development. Similarly, we know little about how poverty exerts its effects on brain-behavioral development, and less about how poverty superimposed on early pre- or perinatal trauma (e.g., prematurity) affects development. These problems (as well as countless others) may be targeted in future years of this initiative.