Does exposure to stress early in life affect a baby’s brain development, and is there a way to single out babies who might benefit from early intervention? A two-center study led by Boston Children’s Hospital, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, used brain EEGs to begin to get at these questions in an objectively measurable way. It found that infants whose mothers reported high levels of stress have a distinct pattern of brain activity as measured by EEG — at only 2 months of age.
“The EEG has been found to be exquisitely sensitive to perturbations in the environment, and thus we are not entirely surprised to see an association between stress in a mother’s life and her infant’s brain activity,” says Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital and the study’s senior investigator. “What we were surprised by, in part, was how early in life we see this association.”
A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that mothers’ experiences affect their babies’ chromosomes. For the first time, it also shows a gender difference — with male babies more susceptible to maternal influence. And it even implicates experiences dating back to the mother’s own childhood.
The researchers enrolled 151 socioeconomically diverse mothers and their infants, all born at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The mothers completed in-depth interviews during pregnancy. Cord blood was collected from the newborns so that their chromosomes could be examined — and in particular, the little caps at their tips known as telomeres. …
Can a robotic talking bear have therapeutic value? “The Bear,” part of a New York Times video series called Robotica, offers a glimpse of Huggable’s potential when Beatrice Lipp, a child with a chronic medical condition, visits the hospital, nervous about what’s to come.
“We want to offer kids one more way of helping them to feel OK where they are in what’s otherwise a really stressful experience,” explains Dierdre Logan, PhD, director of Psychological Services for Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Huggable, a creation of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group and the Boston Children’s Simulator Program, comes into Beatrice’s room to chat, play games like “I Spy” and tell jokes. The session is recorded on video, and a bracelet called a Q Sensor collects Beatrice’s physiologic data–changes in skin conductance, temperature and motion that may indicate distress. Researchers at Northeastern University are analyzing these data to gauge the robot’s effect. Eventually, Huggable will be able to react to the data and respond accordingly—offering relaxation exercises and guided imagery, for example, if a child remains anxious.
Currently, Huggable is voiced by Child Life staff, but the ultimate goal is for it to work autonomously. Beatrice is part of a 90-child study comparing Huggable, an ordinary teddy bear and a tablet Huggable image.
I admit: My immediate thought on seeing Huggable was that kids would immediately see him (her?) as a fake, but the bear’s robotic nature doesn’t seem to faze them. As Logan says in the video:
I think there’s a way of connecting with kids that’s different than what grownups have to offer. They have incredible imaginations. And they can really suspend disbelief. There can be a true relationship that develops between Huggable and a patient.
Severe social and emotional deprivation in early life is written into our biochemical stress responses. That’s the latest learning from the long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), which began in 2000 and has been tracking severely neglected Romanian children in orphanages. Some of these children were randomly picked to be placed with carefully screened foster care families, and they’ve been compared with those left behind ever since.
While studies in rodents have linked early-life adversity with hyper-reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, the relationship has been harder to pin down in humans. BEIP’s study, involving almost 140 children around the age of 12, had children perform potentially stressful tasks, including delivering a speech before teachers, receiving social feedback from other children and playing a computer game that malfunctioned partway through.
Unlike the rodents, the institutionalized children had blunted responses in the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the “fight or flight” response, and in the HPA axis, which regulates production of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers note that this dulled physiologic response has been linked to health problems, including chronic fatigue, pain syndrome and auto-immune conditions, as well as aggression and behavioral problems. …