The Brain Architects: Connecting Health & Learning Part I: The Science
How do our biological systems work together to respond to chronic stress? What do these responses mean for early learning and lifelong health? And when we say that early experiences matter, what do we mean by early? This episode of The Brain Architects podcast addresses all these questions and more!
To kick off this episode, Center Director Dr. Jack Shonkoff describes the body’s stress response system, how our biological systems act as a team when responding to chronic stress, and the effects chronic stress can have on lifelong health.
This is followed by a discussion among a panel of scientists including Dr. Nicki Bush (University of California-San Francisco), Dr. Damien Fair (University of Minnesota), and Dr. Fernando Martinez (University of Arizona). The panelists discuss how our bodies respond to adversity, inflammation’s role in the stress response system, the effects of stress during the prenatal period and first few years after birth, and how we can use this science to prevent long-term impacts on our health.
Resources from the Center on the Developing Child
- Working Paper 15: Connecting the Brain to the Rest of the Body: Early Childhood Development and Lifelong Health Are Deeply Intertwined
- InBrief: Connecting the Brain to the Rest of the Body
- Health and Learning Are Deeply Interconnected in the Body: An Action Guide for Policymakers
- What Is Inflammation? And Why Does it Matter for Child Development?
- How Racism Can Affect Child Development
- Biel, M.G., Tang, M.H., & Zuckerman, B. (2020). Pediatric mental health care must be family mental health care. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(6):519-520.
- Boyce, W.T., Levitt, P., Martinez, F.D., McEwen, B.S., & Shonkoff, J.P. Genes, environments, and time: The biology of adversity and resilience. Pediatrics. In press.
- Bush, N.R., Savitz, J., Coccia, M., et al. (2020). Maternal stress during pregnancy predicts infant infectious and noninfectious illness. The Journal of Pediatrics.
- Graignic-Philippe, R., Dayan, J., Chokron, S., et al. (2014). Effects of prenatal stress on fetal and child development: A critical literature review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 137-162.
- LeWinn, K.Z., Bush, N.R., Batra, A.B., et al. (2020). Identification of modifiable social and behavioral factors associated with child cognitive performance. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(11):1063-1072.
- O’Connor, T.G., Monk, C., & Fitelson, E.M. (2014). Practitioner review: Maternal mood in pregnancy and child development: Implications for child psychology and psychiatry. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 55(2): 99-111.
- Racine, N., Plamondon, A., Madigan, S., et al. (2018). Maternal adverse childhood experiences and infant development. Pediatrics, 141(4).
- Shonkoff, J.P., Boyce, W.T., Levitt, P., P., Martinez, F.D., & McEwen, B.S. Leveraging the biology of adversity and resilience to transform pediatric practice. Pediatrics. In press.
- Shonkoff, J.P., Slopen, N., & Williams, D. Early childhood adversity, toxic stress, and the impacts of racism on the foundations of health. Annual Review of Public Health. In press.
Sally: Welcome to The Brain Architects, a podcast from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I’m your host Sally Pfitzer. Our center believes that advances in science can provide a powerful source of new ideas that can improve outcomes for children and families. We want to help you apply the science of early childhood development to your everyday interactions with children and take what you’re hearing from our experts and panels and apply it to your everyday work.
In today’s episode, we’ll discuss how early experiences, especially during the prenatal period and first few years after a baby is born, get inside the body and can have long–term impacts on lifelong health. Here to help us dig into that science around the early years and lifelong health is Dr. Jack Shonkoff who is the Professor of Child Health and Development, and the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Hi Jack. It’s really great to have you back.
Jack: Hi Sally. Great to be with you. Thanks very much.
Sally: Let’s dive right in. In previous podcasts, we’ve discussed the impacts of stress and specifically you referred to this term of toxic stress, but we never really went too much into the detail about the body’s stress response system. I’m wondering if you could explain how the body responds to stressors or adverse experiences and environments.
Jack: Yeah. That’s a really good question. For starters, the fact that we have a stress response system is really good. It’s protective for us. It actually can be lifesaving. It’s built into our body because this is how we deal with threat or challenges or hardships. This is the basis of the fight or flight response. So, what’s going on inside our body? Well, when we are stressed, a number of systems in the body get activated. Stress hormone levels are elevated and distributed all through the body. Our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up. This is controlled by signals from the brain to the heart and the cardiovascular system. Our immune system is activated and there’s an inflammatory response. Our metabolic systems are activated to produce more energy for our body—more energy for our muscles, if we have to run or if we have to fight or more energy to think more clearly.
The important message here is that the stress response is not just in our brain, it’s in all of the biological systems in our body that are constantly communicating with each other. They’re all reading the environment, they’re getting feedback, they’re communicating with each other. And this is what allows us to deal with challenges, to deal with an acute threat. The best way to think about this is to think about your brain and your immune system and your metabolic system and your cardiovascular system as all different members of a team. Success as a team depends upon each member of the team having a specific contribution to make. And a successful team depends upon interaction and alignment with each other. If any one part is not pulling its own weight, that affects the whole team.
The immune system is another one of those team players. It is our body’s defense against infection. It’s our body’s ability to respond to injuries that require wound repair, and also helps us to be protected against other kinds of toxic exposures that might come in. Inflammation is the first response of the immune system to the threat of let’s say infection, or let’s say a wound like a cut. Think of it as the mobilization of the kind of first responders of our biological system. Now, everybody knows what inflammation looks like outside the body. When you have a cut or some kind of an injury that’s bleeding, and as it starts to heal, you notice that the area around the cut is red, it can be warm in the beginning, it may be particularly sensitive or painful. That’s the inflammatory response that is actually fighting against germs coming in. It’s kind of cleaning out body tissue that may have been injured by bacteria or viruses or trauma, physical trauma and it is beginning to initiate the healing process. And then over time the redness goes away and it’s less painful and the wound is healed.
Well, that inflammation also can happen internally in the body. Now, in the beginning in a stressful situation, inflammation is very helpful internally. It mobilizes your body’s defenses against infection, and it’s meant to then deal with that acute injury or threat and suppress it. But what happens if the stress continues? This is what we refer to as toxic stress. So, in the beginning, it’s protective, but over time, that inflammation can then start to have a wear and tear effect on the body. It can actually start to disrupt organ systems. Here’s one or two examples. We know that inflammation accelerates atherosclerosis, kind of forming plaques that can clog up your arteries around your heart. Inflammation can also affect metabolic systems leading to insulin resistance internally and increasing the risk for diabetes. Individuals who have severe depression have elevated inflammatory markers in their body, evidence of elevated inflammation.
We know that chronic inflammation internally doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get any of the diseases that I just mentioned, but it means that it increases your risk, which is now beginning to help us understand what is it about chronic severe stress that makes people more likely to develop chronic diseases, not just mental health problems, but physical health problems.
Sally: That’s really interesting. And hearing you talk about how early experiences of chronic stress can have more of a long–term impact, I’m imagining that these impacts are not likely evenly distributed. Right? And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that.
Jack: We have a very serious problem certainly in this country of unequal access to healthcare and unequal treatment in the health care system. And those are very important and clearly need a lot of work. But that’s not the whole story about disparities in health outcomes. Before we get to issues about healthcare, how does it happen that we have inequalities in the prevalence of many stress-related diseases like heart disease and hypertension and stroke? The new science is helping us get inside the body and say what is it about chronic stress and chronic hardship that leads to health problems? How does that happen? Some of this we’ve talked about already, which is the chronic activation of multiple parts of the stress response system that can have a wear and tear effect on different organs and biological systems leading to the most common and the most expensive chronic diseases in adult life.
So, when we think about that problem of chronic adversity, and we know there are some very consistent and predictable differences in terms of racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes, starting with prematurity and low birth weight, and then extending all the way up to obesity and heart disease and type 2 diabetes and a variety of other chronic disorders. So how do we understand this? Well, here is some of the things that are very important for all of us to focus on. Number one, the differences by race and ethnicity are not genetic. There may be for some individuals, a greater risk for some diseases related to genetics, but from a population basis, certainly for race, race is a social construct, there’s no biological basis for race and certainly not when we’re talking about illnesses.
This gets us back to the discussion that we’ve been having about how chronic stress and chronic stress activation lays the foundation for greater risk for health problems later in life. Often, we make a list of sources of chronic adversity. We talk about poverty, we talk about racism, we talk about exposure to violence, we talk about a serious mental illness in a family, a young child living alone with a mother with severe depression who loves her child as much as any mother does but can’t be consistently responsive because of depression which is an illness. The body’s stress system and its response is the same regardless of the source of the stress.
There’s something about systemic racism and the kind of interpersonal discrimination that’s part of the daily lives of people who are subjected to structural inequities, things that are built into society, that really requires us to take a careful look and say on the one hand, racism is a source of stress like many other sources of stress, but on the other hand, systemic racism and being constantly subjected to the indignities of discrimination raises a different question, which is: what do we do about that? How do we protect young children from the racism that their families and other caregivers have to deal with?
The real solution to this is to go upstream and to deal at the source with the hardships and the threats of systemic racism that are bearing down on families, rather than focusing on helping families to cope with that racism. This is prevention in its true sense, which is not just to kind of put a band–aid on things, but to go to the source. I think the increased consciousness that we have in our society right now about systemic racism in a way that has always been known to families of color, but has sometimes been invisible—many times been invisible to families who do not know what it’s like to be victimized by chronic racism presents a really important opportunity for us to be much smarter and much more effective about how we think about this issue.
Sally: You brought up some really important points. And we’re actually going to be getting more into the policy and system solutions in the next episode, so stay tuned. But can you tell us a little bit more about why early in childhood development is so important? So, I know we say early a lot, but what does that actually mean?
Jack: Yeah. This is a really important question about what we mean by early and this is one of the real game changers about connecting the brain to the rest of the body. There’s an increasing public understanding that chronic stress activation can affect the development of the brain and ultimately affect your readiness to come to school prepared to succeed. But what this new science is telling us as we connect the brain to the rest of the body, is it’s not just about early learning, it’s also about the foundations of lifelong health.
And if you think about the way we approach early childhood policies and early childhood programs, we have over the years realized that kindergarten is a nice time to start school, but actually it’d be better to start school earlier especially for children who are living under difficult circumstances. We have been increasing our investment in preschool for three and four-year-olds. Makes a lot of sense, good decision in terms of public policy. But for the children who are experiencing the most severe stress, that’s not early because the effects of this serious adversity begin very early.
In fact, they begin even before you’re born. A pregnant woman who is in an environment where there’s very little support, where there’s constant stress activation, and also may be problems with inadequate nutrition, exposure to pollutants in the environment, these kinds of stressors and adversities can actually affect the development of the fetus before a baby is born. And certainly, in early infancy in an environment that is constantly stressed, this can really affect the environment of relationships in which very young children grow up.
When we start to talk about health and not just learning, and we think about how all of these biological systems are responding to the environment, the science is sending us a very clear message. In the face of significant chronic adversity, we need to begin way before age three and four, in terms of providing an environment that’s more supportive of healthy development to reduce those sources of external stress. Metabolic systems and the immune system begin to show effects that may be more difficult to change later as early as the prenatal period and certainly in the first two years after birth.
And so, that’s the important message of this new science for the early childhood period. It’s about health as well as about learning. And early in the face of severe adversity means prenatal and the first two or three years after birth. The bottom line for all of this is we are now learning that what happens early on prenatally and in the first couple of years sets you on a pathway to be either more at risk for some problems or more protected for some problems. But it’s not an absolute prediction. It’s never too late to make things better, but in the long run, you’re always better off by having the best health-promoting experiences as early as possible.
Sally: Yeah. I’ve often heard you use that phrase that early is better, but it’s never too late. And I’m really glad to hear that continue to come up in our podcast because it’s such an important message for listeners to take home. When we come back, we’re going to have Jack answer a question that was submitted by a listener, and we’re going to dive into that question together.
Sally: And we’re back, and now we’re going to answer a question from one of our listeners. I know how much I enjoy getting a chance to ask you questions, Jack. And this time we thought we’d ask the audience. Here’s one from Sid Gardner.
Sid: Hello. I’m Sid Gardner, President of Children and Family Futures. And my question for Dr. Shonkoff is the impact of prenatal substance exposure is mentioned briefly as one item in the list of toxic effects. How does this affect physical and mental health and what can we do about it?
Jack: Sid, that’s a really important question and I really appreciate it. There’s a very well-described phenomenon of fetal alcohol effects or fetal alcohol syndrome that exposure to alcohol at different times during pregnancy can have significant effects on brain development and also physical features that are very noticeable after a baby is born.
We have lots of examples of how certain exposures to substances that are particularly disruptive to different organ systems based on where they are in their development before birth can have significant consequences after birth. This is about sensitive periods in development, which by definition are periods when that particular organ or that particular function is optimally responsive to environmental influences, even the environment in the uterus. And so, positive experiences promote healthy development and adverse experiences or exposures can disrupt development. That question about prenatal substance exposures, substance abuse is a critical question because it’s the poster child for how we need to pay attention to making sure that we promote a healthy environment in which pregnancy takes place.
All of the systems, the biological systems that we’ve been talking about, the brain, the immune system, the metabolic system develop over time. And when we’re very young, including before we’re born, these systems are relatively immature and they are developing their capacities and they’re developing their structures in part on a timetable that’s genetically determined. When things develop is pretty much genetically determined, but how they develop is literally shaped by the environment in which that development is taking place.
So, if we think about alcohol, whether this is threatening or not to health depends not simply on exposure, but on the timing. And so that’s why from a prevention point of view, the more we know about when are the sensitive periods and how can we prevent exposure to substances or infections that can influence later development, that’s how we promote and preserve good health and promote healthy development. It’s about timing and it’s about the differential sensitivity, the different levels of sensitivity of different parts of the developing brain and developing body as the normal processes of growth and development take place.
Sally: Thanks Jack. And thanks Sid for that great question. Remember if you have a question for Dr. Shonkoff, you can always send us a message on one of our social media channels. We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Up next, our panel will dig even deeper into the science of early childhood development.
Sally: Joining us on this podcast today is Dr. Damien Fair. Dr. Fair is the Redleaf Endowed Director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, Professor in the Institute of Child Development, College of Education and Human Development, Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Thanks for being on the podcast today, Dr. Fair.
Dr. Fair: Thanks, Sally. Glad to be here.
Sally: Also joining us is Dr. Nicole Bush, Associate Professor in the University of California, San Francisco Department of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, the Director of the Division of Developmental Medicine and the Lisa and John Pritzker Distinguished Professor of Developmental and Behavioral Health. Welcome to the podcast, Dr. Bush.
Dr. Bush: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sally: We also have Dr. Fernando Martinez, University of Arizona Regents Professor of Pediatrics and the Director of the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center. Nice to speak to you, Dr. Martinez.
Dr. Martinez: Nice to be here.
Sally: I’m going to start by asking this question to you Dr. Fair. Science is now telling us more about how the brain works with other systems in the body to respond to adversity, and could you say more about what’s actually happening in a child’s body developmentally among these systems?
Dr. Fair: That’s a great question. Now, some would argue that the two most complex systems of the body are the brain and the immune system. Of course, I’m a neuroscientist so I always put the brain at number one. But unlike other organs in the body, like the heart or the lungs or the gut, which are located in very specific parts of our body, the immune system is simply everywhere. Immune cells and the chemical messengers flow freely through our bloodstream. They wiggle their way into different parts of our body everywhere.
For many years, it was very difficult to identify or even think about how the brain might interact with the immune system in response to stress or adversity, anxiety, things like that. And it’s now quite clear that they interact in lots of ways and very specifically in development. For example, immune cells, and again, the chemical messengers that are generated in these immune organs like bone marrow, the spleen, lymphatic system, which kind of cleans out a lot of stuff related to the immune system, all have very intricate ties to the brain.
And we know that stress in particular has a very large effect on the immune system in development. The highest vulnerabilities are likely in younger ages. The immune system is critical for normative development. It may actually come to some surprise to most, but all the neurons that we’re ever going to have for our lives typically are at their final resting place right about the time that we’re born.
And then by the time we’re two, you have this proliferation of connections that go throughout the entire brain related to all those neurons. And then over time, over development, we slowly start to prune away these neurons and these different connections. That’s what it means to mature. Now it’s almost like a sculpture where you’re slowly chipping away to get the final product. Well, it turns out that the immune system is really important for that pruning and that cleaning things up. It probably doesn’t come to too much surprise that the changes in the activity of the immune system have very big impacts on brain development over our lifetime.
Dr. Martinez: I think it’s important to stress what Damien was saying. There’s no one system that reigns. We are one thing. And therefore, while we’re developing, if there are extreme sources of stress, it is the whole system that responds wrongly. That’s why none of these effects are on just one organ. Of course, they may be more important for one organ, for example exposures to pollution may affect more the lungs, but now we know that it affects all other organs, including the heart, the brain, of course, the immune system and so forth. That’s an important concept, that we respond like a whole body, not like a single organ.
Sally: That’s actually a really good segue into the next question which I have for you Dr. Martinez. Could you for our listeners go into more detail about inflammation’s role in the stress response system and how it can help or actually hurt us, especially young children whose systems are still developing.
Dr. Martinez: Well in the face of exposures, the body has a system of recognition of these exposures. This process of recognizing what is out there that is not dangerous and what is out there that is dangerous. The response is that of activating the cells that are there, that are part of the immune system that are kind of the first stage of response. That first stage of response is perhaps the most primitive that we have, but it’s very effective sometimes and it’s enough for this danger to go away.
When we are unable to completely clear that first stage, then the second stage occurs. And during that second stage, other cells come from other organs, and a full-blown response develops. Inflammation then is the result of these two phases of the response. Its main objective is to get rid of an acute insult, whatever that insult may be. But when these insults become chronic, in other words, when they develop for a long period of time, or when we have learned not to recognize what is acute and what is dangerous, we start developing what is called a chronic inflammatory response. It’s almost as if we are overdoing it as thinking that we have to be defending ourselves constantly. And that is what is called the chronic inflammatory response.
It’s important to understand that there are these two dimensions of inflammation. One is inflammation as a good thing. Inflammation is a way in which the body responds to an insult to get rid of the insult, to control the insult, to destroy bacteria, viruses, whatever it is that is attacking. But there is a second aspect to it which is this chronic aspect. When you have all these chemical signals and all these cells hanging around the organs that are affected by chronic inflammation, what starts happening is that the organ starts something that we call remodeling. In other words, it starts reorganizing itself. And this is very important during development when the organs are growing. Because now, together with the normal signals of growth and development, you’re seeing these other signals that are interfering with the normal signals that tell the organs how is it that they have to grow. And they start growing “the wrong way.” Asthma, for example, becomes a disease that has transformed the organ. And now we don’t only have to reverse the inflammation that caused this in the first place, but we have to reverse the remodeling of the organ, the remaking of the organ. That’s why it’s important to understand that avoiding the factors that determine chronic inflammation is very important because it has long-term consequences for the individual.
Sally: Dr. Bush, what does the science say about the effects of adversity and stress during the prenatal period and the first few years after a baby is born?
Dr. Bush: It’s a great question. Young children’s brains are remarkably malleable and they constantly are seeking and absorbing information from their environments that their brains need and use to adapt. And this helps ensure their survival and optimize capacity to learn and thrive. But childhood adversities have the potential to affect these systems in a way that leads to impacts on things such as cardio-metabolic health, depression, diabetes, and multiple other health domains across the life course.
People have been getting kind of earlier and earlier in the chain of development to understand where can we make the biggest impact? Where can we understand both the influence and opportunity for intervention? And so, some folks are leaning closer towards thinking their priorities should be focused on the first 1000 days of life. Adversity during this period has strong prediction of a variety of health outcomes. That’s why early safety–net programs, paid parental leave, and high-quality childcare and preschool are so critical to our nation’s health.
Something that hasn’t received as much public attention is that an increasing number of studies are demonstrating that children’s biological systems begin to be shaped in the womb during pregnancy, and at this developmental stage, they’re substantially influenced by their mother’s biology. Most people recognize that a mother’s pregnancy nutrition or her exposure to cigarette smoke is something we really need to be careful about because they’re so important for the baby’s development, but also things like her sleep health and experiences of stress actually affect her physiology in a way that programs the fetus’s development, and then influence that fetus’s risk for a range of developmental, emotional and physical health problems throughout their life course.
One of our team’s studies of low-income families just recently showed that mom’s reports of feeling overwhelmed by stressors during pregnancy predicted major increases in number of infants’ infections and non-infectious illnesses. So basically, babies of stressed pregnant mothers were sicker and they required more care from their pediatrician in the emergency room. And findings like this point to how critical it is for us to take care of pregnant women, not just for their own health and wellbeing, but for that of their children.
Recent evidence that it isn’t just maternal stress during pregnancies that’s transmitted, but a mother’s own adverse childhood events, her ACEs, or her traumatic experiences during her own childhood appear to affect her biology through her adulthood in a manner that affects her baby’s development in utero. So, to put that in another way, a mom’s own childhood stress can 20, 30 years later have a programming influence on her offspring’s early and later life mental and physical health. This shows a truly trans-generational inheritance of the experiences of major environmental stressors, and it also shows us that intervening to help children either by preventing trauma or supporting them in coping with it after the fact can impact future generations’ health too.
Sally: Our listeners may be hearing this and they may be thinking something along the lines of, if my children experienced a lot of adversity or stress early on that they might be in trouble in terms of their development. Or even if I experienced a lot of stress and adversity early on that I might be in trouble. What could you do to prevent chronic health conditions from developing or to help build resilience?
Dr. Bush: Well, since I just ended with some stressful news about pregnancy stress, I’m really happy to point out that we are finding out a lot about how pregnancy is also an incredible window of opportunity to improve maternal and child health. We have findings showing that a stress reduction intervention in pregnancy leads to improved stress physiology, function, and more adaptive, emotional, and behavioral responses in infants. And we’re also finding that high–quality parenting in the first year of life buffers infants from prenatal stress effects. And another study showing that parental understanding of infant development and having appropriate expectations for infant or toddler behavior completely buffer one-year-olds from the risk of prenatal stress associations. Although more importantly, data suggests that if we were to reduce or eliminate major stressors like racism, poverty, food insecurity, and abuse, we would prevent the need to focus on building up those protective factors, and it would certainly have major cost benefits for society.
Dr. Fair: I will add to that great discussion and just highlight that the early brain, the child brain, just as it’s vulnerable to certain types of changes with regard to stress and factors that we’ve been discussing here, the time is also when it’s most malleable, plastic, and resilient. Meaning the interventions are going to be more effective at this early age as well. And it provides an opportunity for us to really try to change thetrajectory by correcting things that may have gone wrong in the past.
Dr. Martinez: It’s also important to understand that for anything that we’re exposed to, there is a very high diversity of responses in the population. There are many sources for this diversity, which is also called heterogeneity of response. Among these sources, there are exposures and behavioral changes and so forth that Dr. Bush was saying counteract other exposures and other effects. It’s not written than the person who is exposed to a very significant amount of distress during the first years of life is condemned to have chronic inflammation and to have remodeling, reorganization of the organs, and there’s nothing to do about it. Quite surely, there are people who live in that situation but come along and don’t develop those responses. That may be in the future a way in which we counterbalance those negative effects by this resilience that is also so marked as a characteristic of human beings.
Dr. Bush: I love that Dr. Martinez highlighted the kind of individual differences in who has adverse outcomes after experiencing a lot of chronic adversity. At the same time, a lot of people are remarkably resilient for a variety of reasons, some internal, some external. And what we want to do is promote that resilience, but also not frighten everyone into thinking they’re doomed to cardiovascular disease because they had a difficult childhood. The flip side, also very glad that Dr. Fair highlighted how malleable we are for positive changes in early childhood. We have some really exciting evidence across a range of studies that show you can reverse the harmful effects of traumatic events on child biology, through evidence-based therapy interventions. In some cases, the children receiving therapy actually show biological repair and healthier outcomes than some control group kids. And so, there’s lots of reasons to be hopeful that our bodies have the capacity to not only survive and cope with adversity, but rise above sometimes doing better in the end.
Dr. Fair: And the good news is there are a whole host of things that our policy makers can assist to make sure the trends are good. Individual and family support structures, strong access to good education, economic security, all those social factors have a large, large impact on long-term outcomes in our kids, depending on some of the things that we’re talking about today.
Dr. Bush: In addition to caring for children and their parents, it’s also really important for listeners to recognize that adversity and trauma do harm children and families across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. We need to address those directly for all people, all communities by screening in early childhood, screening in pregnancy and screening in adulthood for histories of trauma, so that we can address these social needs of individuals. I’m really hoping that we can make efforts to help insurance providers see the benefit of evolving their understanding, how to care for children, and that that includes caring for their caregivers, both family caregivers, and preschool and early childcare, reimbursement for screening and follow-up for treatment. The data are really compelling that in addition to those solutions being both just and right, that investments in prevention and early treatment could save incredible amounts of money in our societies.
Sally: Thank you all for being here. We really appreciate hearing your individual expertise and also how your knowledge can really build off of each other to give us a full picture of what’s going on. When we come back, Dr. Shonkoff will be discussing a common misconception about early childhood development and lifelong health.
Sally: I’m joined again by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who’s going to help clear up some myths and misconceptions in early childhood development. So, Jack, we’ve talked a lot about how early experiences can affect health many years later, but many people wonder how it can be possible that experiences we have before we can even remember them could affect lifelong health.
Jack: It’s really one of the most important myths that we need to bust. And the simple answer to that is that we may not have conscious memories of things that happened very early in our lives, in our infancy, especially traumatic experiences or significant adversity, but what the science is telling us is, the body doesn’t forget what’s happening in these very early months and years. We’re not talking about inevitable poor outcomes,but significant stress activation well before a young child tends to have any sense of what’s going on, creates physical changes, physiological changes, inside the body that affect brain development, can affect the development of the immune system, the cardio-metabolic systems.
So, people who may be a little bit skeptical that something that happened when you were an infant can affect your mental health later, but at least you could begin to see the connection. There’s no logic for people to think that that would have something to do with whether you get heart disease 50 years later. But what the science is telling us is that those biological changes early on can increase your risk for these physical health problems later on. That’s one of the most important messages coming from this new science that is compelling us to connect the brain to the rest of the body. Because what happens early on is not only important for learning and social and emotional development and school achievement, but it’s an important influence on your physical and mental health for the rest of your life.
Sally: That’s such an important point Jack. And I think today’s myth was a particularly dangerous one. I’m really glad we had an opportunity to discuss it at greater length and that you were able to bust it.
Sally: We discussed a lot of important issues today to explain why the early years are so important and especially why intervening early is so important. And I’m sure we gave our listeners a lot to consider or at least I hope we did. I’d like to end by asking you, Jack, to give our listeners one key takeaway that they should leave this podcast with today.
Jack: I think what’s really important about the big picture for what the science is telling us is a couple of things. Number one is, there are no perfect brains, there are no perfect immune systems. How we grow up, how we learn, what our health is like is related to the interaction between how we are individually wired to begin with and what our life experiences are about. And the important part of our life experiences, the most important, is the environment of relationships that we grow up in. And then also of importance is the physical environment in which we grow up. How safe is it? How protected or exposed are we to toxic substances in the environment, lead, mercury? How much space do we have to move around? So all of these things together, interacting with how everybody is unique from a genetic point of view results in a wide, wide range of normal development.
Our role as parents, as other caregivers, as a community and as a society is to do whatever we can to provide a health-promoting and growth-promoting environment for children, recognizing that everything we do that’s supportive will increase the likelihood of a very successful and fulfilling life.
The bottom line for all of this is it’s a matter of balance. The more the pile up of risk factors and threats, the greater the risks. The more we build up protection and support for the environment in which children grow up, the smaller the likelihood of problems. The important thing to remember is that the way biology works, it’s always trying to make things right. When things happen in the environment that threaten health, all of the systems in our body are reading the environment and they are responding to try to keep us healthy, they’re responding to get us back on track. These new scientific insights should really be a source of reassurance for us and at the same time, a wake-up call about the kinds of life experiences that are threatening so that we can protect children as early in their lives as possible.
Sally: Thanks so much for your time again today, Jack.
So how can we protect children and promote healthy development and lifelong health as early as possible? In our next episode, we’ll discuss what this science means for listeners, including caregivers, policymakers, practitioners, and system providers.
I’d like to once again thank our guests, Dr. Damien Fair, Dr. Nicole Bush, Dr. Fernando Martinez, and Dr. Jack Shonkoff. And thanks to Sid Gardner for your question. I’m your host, Sally Pfitzer, and we hope you’ll join us next time!
The Brain Architects is a product of The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. You can find us at developingchild.harvard.edu, where we’ll post any resources that were discussed in this episode. We’re also on Twitter, @HarvardCenter, Facebook, @centerdevelopingchild, Instagram, @developingchildharvard, and LinkedIn- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Brandi Thomas and Charley Gibney are our producers. Bridgette Cyr is our audio editor. Our music is Brain Power by Mela from freemusicarchive.org.