Nurturing Our Young Pays Off
The December 2013 Bulletin on Early Childhood Development of the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development, in tribute to Clyde Hertzman’s role in drawing attention to the role of early adversity in children’s development, features reviews of several key papers published in 2011-12 representing some of the best ECD research in Canada. The article “Nurturing Pays Off” (1) reviews the article by Michael Kobor [from H.E.L.P and the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics (CMMT) at UBC] and his colleagues E. Chen, G.E. Miller, and S.W. Cole, in Molecular Psychiatry 2011; 16 (7): pp. 729-737 on “Maternal warmth buffers the effects of low early-life socioeconomic status on pro-inflammatory signalling in adulthood” (2).
Their study helps to uncover the biological mechanisms behind the association between poor socioeconomic status early in life and poor physical and mental health in adulthood “by demonstrating that individuals who spent the first few years of their lives in poverty developed a gene expression pattern that promoted the production of inflammatory compounds in the body” and that they also “had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and hyper-reactive white blood cells. This kind of ongoing inflammation and bodily stress can contribute to multiple chronic disease state, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression.”
However, although the paper represents early-stage findings from a fairly small sample of individuals, that will need to be confirmed by a larger study, Dr. Kobor states that, “The key message here is a message of hope. The immune cells of people with a low early-life socioeconomic status who experienced high maternal warmth reacted less vigorously to stimulation … and their gene expression profile was less skewed toward pro-inflammatory gene expression patterns.” (1)
The study tested the hypothesis that “adults who grew up in low socioeconomic status (SES) households, but who experienced high levels of maternal warmth, would be protected from the pro-inflammatory states typically associated with low SES.” 53 healthy adults, in the age range of 25-40 years old, “were assessed on markers of immune activation and systemic inflammation. Genome-wide transcriptional profiling also was conducted.” The findings supported the hypothesis. “To the extent that such effects are causal, they suggest the possibility that the detrimental immunologic effects of low early-life SES environments may be partly diminished through supportive family environments.” (2)
Katie McLaughlin, an expert in childhood trauma from the University of Washington notes that... “This paper is particularly promising because it examined normal variations in parent-child relationships…. It showed that in the context of normal caregiving, parents who provide warm, supportive family environments are able to counteract some of the negative neurobiological pathways that seem to be initiated when growing up in a low-resource environment. This suggests that there are a whole variety of things we could be doing to prevent some of the cascading neurobiological consequences of growing up in poverty.” (1)
Access this article here.