Regina Sullivan, Ph.D., Prof. of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine; Research Scientist at Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.
Our environment and experiences change the physical structure of our brain, especially during “Sensitive Periods,” such as early life and peri-adolescence, when the brain undergoes experienced-based sculpting. Since the brain controls how we process information and determines our behavior, understanding environmental impact is critical — interacting with our genes, the environment can sculpt a citizen who enriches society or drains its resources. While this is important for humanitarian reasons, it is also an important economic issue, since being raised in poverty or a harsh environment can produce brain changes that cause antisocial behavior and compromised physical and mental health. But not all aspects of the environment are equal. Repeated trauma and abnormally high, prolonged stress targets developing emotional and cognitive circuits in the brain, and adversity from caregivers and close social groups are particularly strong regulators of brain development. An environment with neurotoxins (i.e., pollution) amplifies the effects of adversity. On the other hand, recent research has uncovered the critical importance of social support — especially from caregivers — in attenuating the effects of adversity on the developing child’s brain. This suggests that support for caregivers could play a key role in helping a child’s brain develop to its full potential. Understanding the effects of social support on the neurobehavioral effect of trauma is key, as it will provide clues about their influence on health and well-being. The literature already indicates that social support impact is complex,. This is indicated by sociological measures (i.e., analysis of large scale social interactions) and biological ones — peripheral biomarkers (i.e., blood, saliva) and brain imaging show that social influences take many pathways. This suggests that measuring adversity in the environment is vital, while understanding the source of the adversity (i.e. family vs. neighborhood violence) and the family’s ability to buffer children from it are essential to designing effective interventions. To that end, interaction between trauma and social support can be explored in novel ways. First, existing data can be re-analyzed to extract information about the social context of trauma. Using computational modeling that includes features of social interaction is one approach. Second, new data can be collected that explores the social context as a modulator of adversity (e.g., social support available to the child). Through its new data collection technologies, The Human Project permits assessment of social contact between a child and others, offering insights about parent-child interactions (e.g. harsh vs. nurturing). The Human Project also illuminates the concept of “social presence” and how this interfaces with technology (i.e., social presence in a phone call vs texting), as well as how much a technology context engages the social behavior circuits of the brain. By integrating neuroscience and population-based measures, The Human Project, creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts