Biobehavioral Research Laboratory Research | Overview
The research conducted in the Biobehavioral Research Laboratory (BRL) examines the diverse routes by which intergenerational effects influence mental health risk, integrating genetics and epigenetics, neuroscience, biological psychology, and socio-emotional processes. Studies focus on the impact of maternal and child stress and trauma exposures and maternal psychopathology (such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]) on child development. Past and ongoing research has included an examination of the ways that mothers’ trauma histories can disrupt development in pregnancy, infancy, and the preschool period and the ways that such disruptions may increase vulnerability to mental health problems in later life. Studies have also examined how early developmental processes may impact child physical health and neurocognitive development.
Currently, we are focusing on these broad areas:
The impact of parental and child stress and trauma on child developmental outcomes
We conduct research examining how parental and child exposures to stressful life events can impact child mental and physical health and neurodevelopment. We are interested in understanding the processes by which stress “gets under the skin” to impact health outcomes. We frequently focus on the earliest periods of life, from fetal development through middle childhood, as these may be particularly sensitive/critical developmental periods. We examine various mechanisms, including stress reactivity (HPA axis, autonomic nervous system), emotional and behavioral regulation, epigenetics, and caregiving quality.
The effects of environmental exposures on child health and development
We collaborate with investigators across the country to understand how various types of environmental exposures during critical periods of development influence child health outcomes, including neurodevelopment, mental health, and physical health. We incorporate various domains of study, including epidemiology, stress physiology, immunology, genetics, epigenetic, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. We participate in NIH’s ECHO program, which assesses children across the United States in a standardized manner to investigate how environmental exposures (e.g., physical, chemical, biological, social, behavioral, natural and built environments) impact child health and development from pregnancy through adolescence.
Through collaborations with other laboratories within and outside Boston Children’s hospital, we conduct studies to understand the earliest risk factors for and manifestations of mental health difficulties. One of these studies, known as The Emotion Project, is an extensive longitudinal study that has collected data on children from infancy through age 7 years, including repeated assessments of neural responses to threat (using EEG and fNIRS), behavioral indicators of threat reactivity (e.g., attentional bias, temperament), autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity, executive functioning, and environmental exposures (e.g., maternal psychopathology, family negative life events, COVID-19 stressors). Currently, we are following this sample at ages 11 and 13 to identify factors across development that influence anxiety risk and resilience during early adolescence.