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.
The environment and our experiences change the physical structure of our brain, especially during “Sensitive Periods” across development, such as early life and peri-adolescence, when the brain undergoes experienced-based sculpting. Since the brain controls how we process all information and determines all our behavior, understanding how the environment shapes our brain is critically important –interacting with our genes, the environment can sculpt a citizen that enriches society or drains society of its resources. While this issue is important for humanitarian reasons, it is also an important economic issue since being raised in poverty or in a harsh environment is more likely to produce brain changes causing antisocial behavior and compromised physical and mental health. But not all aspects of the environment impact the brain equally. Repeated trauma and abnormally high, prolonged stressful experiences target the development of emotional and cognitive circuits in the brain. However, adversity from caregivers and close social groups are particularly strong regulators of brain development. Adversity experienced within an environment with neurotoxins (i.e. pollution) further amplifies the effects of adversity. On the other hand, recent research has also uncovered the critical importance of social support in buffering (attenuating) the effects of adversity on the developing child’s brain, especially buffering from caregivers. This later point suggests that in order to help the child’s brain develop to its full potential, societal support for the caregivers needed so that the child can be supported. Recent research indicates that intervention helps prevent or ameliorate the negative impact of early adversity, especially when it involves working with the family. Understanding the effects of social support on the neurobehavioral effect of trauma is critical, but this will also provide clues to the effects of social support on health and well-being. The literature already indicates that social support has complex mechanisms as indicated by biological and sociological measures -i.e. analysis of large scale social interactions within large groups, peripheral biomarkers (i.e. blood, saliva) and brain imaging techniques all indicate that social influences take many pathways. This literature suggests that measuring adversity in the environment is critical, although noting the source of the adversity (i.e. family Vs. neighborhood violence) but also the family’s ability to buffer the child from this adversity are critical features for understanding mechanisms and designing interventions. To better understand this important interaction between trauma and social support can be explored in novel ways. First, existing data can be reanalyzed to extract information about the social context of trauma. Using current computational modeling that includes key features of social interaction is one possible approach. Second, new data can be collected that emphasizes the social context (e.g. social support and social networks available to the child) as a major modulator of adversity. For example, through its use of new data collection technologies, The HUMAN Project (THP) permits the assessment of social contact between the child and others and provides context for parent-child interactions (e.g. harsh vs. nurturing). The THP also illuminates the concept of “social presence” and how this interfaces with technology (i.e. comparing social presence in a phone call relative to texting), as well as how much a technology context is able to engage the social behavior circuits of the brain. An integration of neuroscience and population-based measures is critical–this synergy, built into the THP, creates a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.