The Picower Institute held a scientific symposium this spring focused on the biological effects of early life stresses, and investigators there hope to focus future research on unraveling the biological repercussions of environmental experiences, ranging from poverty to stress.
John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, said in an e-mail that negative effects of social isolation have been shown in a broad range of organisms. Isolation, he said, shortens the lives of fruit flies, makes mice less likely to recover from a stroke, and in people is associated with negative effects on everything from IQ to blood pressure. The body of evidence makes it clear, he said, that social behavior and processes have shaped the evolution of the brain and nervous system.
“Greater integration of animal and human research should facilitate the translation of basic research efforts to clinically relevant treatments and outcomes,” Cacioppo wrote.
Already, researchers are attempting to bridge that gap. A group of Canadian researchers, in a post-mortem analysis of brains of suicide victims, found in 2009 a particular difference in how a gene involved in stress responses was regulated in those who experienced childhood abuse. Similar changes had been found in rat brains.
“Data suggest these things exist, that genes do reflect stress early in life,” said Moshe Szyf, a professor of pharmacology at McGill University who was involved in that work. “Could we reverse them? . . . I think there’s going to be lot happening in mental health and behavior, both using drugs and using behavioral interventions.”