At a Glance

Founded2003
Renewal dates2007, 2012
Members22
SupportersThe Alva Foundation George Weston Limited Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life The Joan and Clifford Hatch Foundation The W. Garfield Weston Foundation (1 Anonymous Donor)
Disciplines
Behavioural, developmental, molecular and evolutionary biology; behavioural genetics; epigenetics; cognitive and developmental neuroscience; biological, cognitive and developmental psychology; psychiatry; biological anthropology; epidemiology; public and environmental health; social biomedical science

How do early childhood experiences affect lifelong health?

Researchers with the program in Child & Brain Development want to know how adversity and enrichment in early childhood affect mental, physical and emotional health throughout a lifetime, and how the problems caused by early adversity can be abated or reversed.

This program has led the way in moving beyond the debate about “nature vs. nurture,” and instead has helped establish that it is interactions among genes and environments during early childhood that guide human development.

The program examines the neurobiological mechanisms that are governed by those gene-environment interactions and how they determine individual differences in children’s development and health. Researchers are also concerned with the larger societal differences in outcomes when children grow up in poverty and when they are reared in more supportive, sustaining environments.

Our unique approach

The Child & Brain Development program has significantly increased knowledge about the way early experiences influence biological development and lead to health differences over time. Program members conduct basic, field and clinical research and come from a wide range of disciplines, including neurobiology, epidemiology, paediatrics, molecular genetics, psychiatry, psychology and anthropology.

They study not only the complex interactions of genes with children’s early environments, but also the neural processes and molecular pathways by which those interactions act on development.

2006-400-rat-mother.png
Senior Fellow Michael Meaney’s work showed that rat pup genes could be turned on and off based on how the mother cared for them

Why this matters

The work of program fellows has galvanized scientific interest in the importance of early life experience. Increased understanding of biological embedding is helping them to test interventions that prevent or moderate the negative impact of early adversity, better understand its effects across multiple generations, and determine the optimal timing of education for children.

For example, Associate Fellow Ronald Barr developed an education intervention that makes parents aware that severe shaking of infants can lead to brain damage or even death. The intervention is now widely used in hospitals in Canada and the US and has helped to reduce the incidence of shaken baby syndrome.

In depth

The program in Population Health, the precursor to Child & Brain Development, had a strong impact in the field, culminating in the publication of Why are Some People Healthy and Others Not?, an influential book which for the first time laid out the broad case for population health and was widely taught and reviewed.

The program was founded in 2003 under the name Experience-based Brain and Biological Development, and is in its third five-year cycle. The current scientific agenda focuses on research to address the mediating, neurodevelopmental processes within the brain that likely underlie how genes and environments work together to affect individual trajectories of development and health.

Researchers with the program have made pioneering contributions to the study of the interplay between genes and the environment, including epigenetics. They have mapped, defined and modelled development and health disparities in human populations, and established animal models to simulate and explain the interaction of genes and environments in the genesis of illness and disordered development.

Senior Fellow Michael Meaney worked with rats to show that the environment did in fact affect how genes were expressed. He examined rat pups who suffered stress because they were neglected (not licked) by their mothers. In the neglected pups the switch that turns on a gene that encodes a neuroreceptor associated with the stress response was “turned down,” making the rats more susceptible to the effects of stress. Meaney later found the same epigenetic change in humans who were neglected or abused in childhood.

Meaney and Senior Fellow Marla Sokolowski have now extended this work into a human sample of at-risk mothers and infants in the Maternal Adversity, Vulnerabilitiy and Neurodevelopment Project. Clear evidence has begun to emerge from this project implicating genetic differences in the calibration of infants’ responses to both negative and positive environmental settings.

Sokolowski - adult sitter fruit fly eating banana-1- 2008
Program Co-Director Marla Sokolowski’s work on fruit flies laid important ground in the genetic and molecular bases of natural individual differences in behaviour. Here a fruit fly with the “sitter” variant of a gene feeds on a banana

An early study of adults raised in low socioeconomic circumstances showed that the genes responsible for regulating the stress hormone cortisol were less active, and the genes responsible for inflammation were more active. These findings help to explain how adverse early experiences can lead to a lifelong increase in the risk of certain chronic diseases related to stress and inflammation. Senior Fellow and program Co-Director W. Thomas Boyce and Clyde Hertzman described the phenomenon in a widely cited paper.

But not all children are affected by stress in the same way. Boyce and co-author Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona suggested that some children are “dandelions,” who will do reasonably well no matter the stress in their environment. Other “orchid” children will do very well in a nurturing environment, but poorly when faced with a poor environment.

Senior Fellow Stephen Suomi found support for the hypothesis among young rhesus macaques. He discovered that some did indeed have constitutional differences that made them thrive in supportive, predictable settings—doing better than their more robust peers—but caused them to fare worse than those peers in more stressful contexts.

New techniques for measuring physiological changes have boosted this avenue of research in humans. Senior Fellow Chuck Nelson and colleagues have recently built a sophisticated neuroimaging lab in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that is allowing them to examine the consequences of a range of adversities in young children living in the slums of that city.

Associate Fellow Megan Gunner contributed to the creation of therapeutic interventions to help mitigate or reverse the heightened stress response of children in foster care who suffered early abuse. Some of her other research indicates parents lose their ability to buffer or prevent stress hormone responses in their children when they reach early adolescence. This work is important because affective disorders (such as depression and bipolar disorder) rise during early adolescence, which may reflect the loss of a strong external regulator of cortisol.

In 2011 program members organized an Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium with the National Academy of Sciences, which resulted in a special edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences edited by program Co-Directors Boyce (University of British Columbia & University of California San Francisco ) and Marla Sokolowski (University of Toronto), and Advisory Committee member Gene Robinson. It was the first volume of collected research to provide a substantial and comprehensive picture of the interaction between experience and biology in the early years.

Recently, Boyce and Mike Kobor examined how epigenetic processes may underlie the biological embedding of early life adversity that are linked to health outcomes later in life. These epigenetic processes may help explain individual variations in the strengths of the linkages, as well as how risk and protections can be passed down through generations.

Senior Fellow Takao Hensch has produced groundbreaking work in the timing of events at the molecular level. He found changes associated with circadian “clock genes” that are involved in the opening and closing of critical periods in brain development. He and other fellows have also experimented with ways to re-open critical periods for those whose development has been impaired. For example, Hensch and colleagues have used a drug to restore plasticity in the brains of mice and correct amblyopia, a condition in which information from one eye is not correctly processed in the brain.

Hensch and CBD Senior Fellow Janet Werker also published a landmark chapter in the Annual Review of Psychology in which they reviewed the literature on speech perception development in humans within the context of Hensch’s mechanistic model of critical periods, which was developed using molecular and cellular techniques with animals. This paper represents the first time there has been a full synthesis of the fields of language development and critical period biology, a synthesis made possible by their collaboration within the CIFAR Network.

In groundbreaking work, Fellow Daniela Kaufer has uncovered the molecular mechanism behind the infertility induced in rats by chronic stress, and identified a potential target for treatment. She and her colleagues have shown the crucial role of the peptide RFRP3, also known as gonadotropin inhibitory hormone, which acts as an inhibitory switch on the reproductive axis. Chronic stress increases the levels of RFRP3 expression in the brain, leading to decreased sexual interest and decreased likelihood of pregnancy when engaged in mating. This finding could lead to a treatment for stress-induced human infertility.

Selected papers

Hertzman C, Boyce T. “How experience gets under the skin to create gradients in developmental health.” Annu Rev Public Health. 2010;31:329-47.

Boyce, W.T. & Kobor , M.S> (2015) Development and the epigenome: the ‘synapse’ of gene-environment interplay. Developmental Science, 18:1-23

Kobayashi Y, Ye Z, Hensch TK. “Clock genes control cortical critical period timing.” Neuron. 2015 April 8; 86(1): 264-75.

Hensch, T.K. et al. “Local GABA Circuit Control of Experience-Dependent Plasticity in Developing Visual Cortex.” Science 282, 1504-1508 (1998).

READ 2016’s ANNUAL UPDATE 

 

Fellows & Advisors

Photo of W. Thomas Boyce

W. Thomas Boyce

Program Co-Director

W. Thomas Boyce is a leading expert on the interplay between neurobiological and psychosocial processes, which leads to socially partitioned differences in childhood health, development and disease. Boyce's research addresses…

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Photo of Marla B. Sokolowski

Marla B. Sokolowski

Program Co-Director

Marla Sokolowski's innovative work is esteemed worldwide as a clear, integrative mechanistic paragon of the manner in which genes can interact with the environment, thus impacting behaviour. She has trail-blazed…

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Fellows

Ronald G. Barr

Associate Fellow

University of British Columbia, BC Children’s Hospital

Canada

David Forrest Clayton

Senior Fellow

Queen Mary, University of London

United Kingdom

Paul Frankland

Fellow

Hospital for Sick Children

Canada

Anna Goldenberg

Fellow

The Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto

Canada

Megan R. Gunnar

Associate Fellow

University of Minnesota

United States

Takao K. Hensch

Senior Fellow

Harvard University

United States

Daniela Kaufer

Fellow

University of California, Berkeley

United States

Michael S. Kobor

Senior Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Bryan Kolb

Senior Fellow

University of Lethbridge

Canada

Joel D. Levine

Senior Fellow

University of Toronto at Mississauga

Canada

Thom McDade

Senior Fellow

Northwestern University

United States

Michael J. Meaney

Senior Fellow

McGill University

Canada

Sara Mostafavi

Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Charles A. Nelson

Senior Fellow

Harvard University

United States

Candice Odgers

Fellow

Duke University

United States

Stephen Suomi

Senior Fellow

National Institutes of Health

United States

Janet Werker

Senior Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Advisors

Nancy E. Adler

Advisor

University of California, San Fransisco

United States

Elisabeth Binder

Advisor

Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry

Germany

Gene Robinson

Advisor

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

United States

Sir Michael Rutter

Advisory Committee Chair

King's College London

United Kingdom

Global Scholars

Ami Citri

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

The Hebrew University

Israel

Kieran O'Donnell

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

McGill University

Canada

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