Evelyn Berger-Jenkins, MD
Natalie Hiromi Brito, PhD
Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD
The earliest childhood experiences — even those that occur before birth — are an essential foundation from which later emotional well–being emerges. Compromised beginnings lead to compromised futures. In the last decade, neuroscientists and developmental psychologists, many of them at Columbia, have made dramatic strides in specifying key aspects of the child’s early social world that affect early brain and behavioral development, and even the biological pathways by which these influences occur.
Nine–month–old infants of mothers providing less sensitive care show more fearfulness, less positive joint attention with their caregivers, and a variation in electrical brain activity associated with risk for a depressive disorder. Studied at 12–months of age, those identified as having a disengaged relationship with their mothers are more likely to have an anxiety disorder later in life. Even the child’s first environment, the prenatal environment, can have an impact: significant maternal distress during pregnancy predicts a greater risk of ADHD in the offspring. When the deficits of the social environment are most extreme, so are the outcomes: 90% of those in U.S. prisons for serious crimes were once the child victims of physical or sexual abuse. Finally, in a translational study of the effects of low maternal care on infant development, researchers studying mother–infant rat dyads found that less maternal care lead to greater stress reactivity seen in fear behavior to novelty as well as an increased release of stress hormones, and, most importantly, differences in gene activity in brain regions that regulate stress responses.
Our understanding of the social construction of the human brain, of the ways in which infants’ social–emotional development is dramatically shaped by their early environments, is progressing rapidly.
The Sackler–Parent Infant Project aims to: (1) provide excellent clinical care for infants and their families, (2), conduct research to establish a scientific body of evidence regarding parent–infant intervention, (3), synthesize the available evidence on clinical approaches to the parent–infant relationship and/or family context that can prevent suboptimal social–emotional development, and risk for future mental illness, and (4) serve as a trusted source of evidence-based information for researchers, clinicians, families and the public on parent-infant interaction. Drawing on the rich and diverse faculty at Columbia, the philosophy of the center includes commitment to ongoing collaborations with developmental neuroscientists, including research projects focused on translational research that uses animal models and neuroimaging, to reveal brain mechanisms involved in therapeutic change. Faculty include infant psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, and trainees under supervision who would deliver the clinical services, and clinical research staff to coordinate these services in the context of scientific research on the outcomes of the interventions.
The explosive growth in brain development in utero and during the first few years of life — and in the recent scientific knowledge showing the impact of parent–infant interactions on this brain–behavior functioning — demands that we develop an equally rigorous intervention science aimed at optimizing the child’s earliest experiences.