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About Our Research

The Brain and Early Experience lab has investigated a swathe of topics regarding development of young minds. The primary focuses of our research look to the earliest ages of children and the way experiences can impact their lives, with nature and nurture being a common thematic throughout our research studies.

Active Research Studies

Principal Investigators: Dr. Cathi Propper and Dr. Sarah Short.

Co-Principal Investigators: Dr. Roger Mills-Koonce and Dr. Michael Willoughby.

The primary program of the Brain and Early Experience lab derives its inspiration from the work done by federal and state governments through billions of dollars spent on need-based programs that are intended to help “level the playing field” between children who grow up in poverty relative to their peers who do not. A key aspect of the government investments is the age range of their programs, which typically target the children 1-2 years before they enroll in kindergarten, an age where the effects of their family’s economic status may have already left its mark. Based on accumulating evidence, early life experience spanning the prenatal period through the first few years of life has a major and lasting impact on children’s cognitive development, academic outcomes and eventual opportunities for success, where brain structures and major neural networks involved in the associated outcomes resemble adult forms by 2 years of age. The Brain and Early Experience Study currently examines the mechanisms by which economic factors may influence neurodevelopment in utero and through three years of age. Findings derived from the study will hopefully inform early intervention and prevention efforts to promote children’s learning ability and their eventual opportunity for success.

The Telomere Extension

Principal Investigators: Dr. Patricia Garrett-Peters and Dr. Idan Shalev

Co-Principal Investigator: Dr. Cathi Propper

Early life adversity is a potent predictor of health and disease burden during middle and late adulthood, as well as earlier, all-cause, and specific disease mortality. Even more disturbing, longitudinal studies suggest that experiences of early life adversity appear to be biologically embedded such that improved later life circumstances have only modest ameliorative effects. As an extension of the Brain and Early Experience Study, this project examines the early biological embedding of health and disease risk in young children’s telomeres, a biomarker of cellular aging. Telomeres naturally shorten with each cell replication (cellular aging) and erode most rapidly in the first years of life, reflecting a sensitive period of development. This study examines the effects of prenatal and postnatal early life adversity on accelerated biological aging, including telomere erosion and epigenetic aging clocks, across the first three years of life. This is one of the first studies to investigate potential linkages between early life adversity, parenting quality, child self-regulation, and biological aging during this critical period in early childhood. Our long-term goal is to determine how early adversity becomes biologically embedded in early childhood in order to prevent or mitigate risk to later health and wellness. Findings will provide important information to help in the development and/or optimization of early risk-mitigating intervention and prevention efforts to improve the quality of life for children.

The Microbiome Extension

Principal Investigators: Dr. Cathi Propper and Dr. Rebecca Knickmeyer.

Co-Principal Investigators: Dr. Roger Mills-Koonce and Dr. Nicholas Wagner.

Early toxic stress can lead to enduring long-term effects on neurodevelopment and behavioral outcomes in children. One mechanism that may mediate these associations is the gut microbiome. There is robust evidence that patterns of gut microbiota may influence neurodevelopment and anxiety-related behaviors in rodents, but there is sparse literature on this association in humans. Recent findings from our research team are the first to reveal that the gut microbiome significantly predicts fear behavior in 1-year-old children. Thus, this study examines the influence of psychosocial stress on the development of gut microbiota, mediated by chronic HPA axis activation, as well as the bidirectional relationship between the developing microbiome and behavioral inhibition across the first four years of life. We also measure alterations in brain development across this time as a mediator of the relationship between the microbiome and behavioral inhibition. As an extension of the Brain and Early Experience Study, this project is one of the first to investigate the influence of early psychosocial stress on the gut microbiome, neurodevelopment and anxiety related behavior. Our long-term goal is to determine how colonization of the gut microbiome impacts human brain development and later risk for psychopathology in order to prevent the onset of psychiatric illness or reduce its severity. Findings from this study, during a sensitive period of early childhood, will provide important information that could inform intervention and prevention efforts soon after birth.

Principal Investigators: Dr. Alison Stuebe, Dr. Roger Mills-Koonce, & Dr. Karen Grewen.

Perinatal depression (PND) affects more than 400,000 mother-infant dyads in the US each year, and with it comes increased risk for reduced sensitivity to infant needs, increasing infant risk for impaired emotional regulation and insecure attachment. Mothers who experience PND are more likely to have continuing or relapsing depression and anxiety disorders, conferring further risk. Nevertheless, despite exposure to PND, some dyads emerge intact. The long-term goal of this research is to identify the psychobiological underpinnings of resilience among mother-child dyads exposed to PND and longer-term maternal depression and anxiety trajectories (MDATs). The objectives of this proposal are to characterize MDAT heterogeneity during the first 5 years of the child’s life, to identify mediators that explain the mechanisms through which MDATs influence child outcomes, and identify moderators that may serve as intervention points for promoting dyadic resilience. Our central hypothesis is that oxytocin plays a central role in dyadic development, indexed by associations between OT psychobiology, genetics and epigenetics and both MDATs and child development outcome. As such, the specific aims of this study are as follows: 1) Elucidate the role of OT in the maternal psychobiological underpinnings of MDATs and parenting behavior, including effects of exogenous oxytocin (OT) on HPA axis reactivity; 2) Determine psychosocial mediators and moderators of associations between MDATs and child developmental outcome; and 3) Determine the extent to which child OXT and OXTR genotype moderates associations between MDATs, sensitivity, attachment quality, and developmental outcome; quantify the extent to which child epigenetic changes in OT and OXTR mediate associations between MDATs and developmental outcome. The expected outcomes of this work will be the determination of both predictive and protective factors for mother-infant dyads affected by depression and anxiety, laying the groundwork for novel approaches to promote resilience.

Archived Research Projects

Principal Investigator: Dr. Mills-Koonce.

The New American Family Study (NAFS) was an NIH-funded study of the transition to parenthood for LGBTQ couples in the United States, centered on two primary objectives. The first objective was to use secondary data analyses of the U.S. Census and American Community Survey to examine within-state changes in rates of same-sex family structures and how these changes correlate with state-level sociopolitical climates and public policies pertinent to LGBTQ family formation. The second objective was a national survey of LGBTQ couples that examined the factors which influenced their decisions pertaining to having and raising their children. These factors included life stress, family relationships, questions about conforming to heteronormative expectations, and socio-political climates and policies at the local- and state-levels.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Mills-Koonce.

The Family Life Project was a multi-university program of research funded by NICHD for more than 10 years.  The Family Life Project (FLP) sought to understand the development of critical child skills in both poor and non poor young children who grew up in rural areas characterized by high poverty. The project recruited a representative sample of every baby born to a mother who lived in one of six poor rural counties (3 in Pennsylvania and 3 in North Carolina) over a one year period, and oversampled for poverty in both regions and African American in North Carolina. An interdisciplinary team of investigators with expertise in a variety of important domains followed these 1,292 children from birth with measurement of child, family, and school functioning yearly (e.g., emotional and behavioral regulation, executive functions, language, and academic achievement as well as social competence), observed mother and father sensitivity and language input in the home setting, quality of instruction in child care and elementary school, characteristics of the neighborhood/community, and biomarkers of child and maternal stress.