Brain Canada FR

Can stress affect a child’s development?

By Brain Canada | Research stories
Regula Neuenschwander leading an informal workshop at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute

Adolescent participating in intervention research focused on classical conditioning – a key element underlying the placebo effect – of thermal perception in youth. Differences in thermal ratings in response to conditioned cues are being assessed, and this indicates either attenuated or amplified thermal perception.

Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and control one’s own behaviour, emotions, and thoughts, and to adapt to the task at hand. Double checking work is an illustration of good self-regulation; losing your temper is a reflection of poor self-regulation. It involves control mechanisms functioning at the biological and behavioural level that enable an individual to manage arousal, attention, emotion, behaviour, and cognition in an adaptive way, facilitating goaldirected actions. (See sidebar on Self Regulation).

Research has shown that the brain pathways and neurobiological processes associated with selfregulation, such as stress reactivity and attentional capacity, are affected by the in utero environment. Regula Neuenschwander’s research examines how early stress affects children’s development. She is looking specifically at 6 year-olds whose mothers have been depressed or non-depressed during pregnancy, and how well the children develop in terms of their self-regulation.

Regula and her colleagues have found that a mother’s depressed mood during pregnancy can change how a child manages stress arousal (i.e., stress regulation) and how she/ he performs on challenging thinking tasks. Importantly, not all changes are negative, but may be adaptive for the world the child is living in. Examining developmental effects of fetal exposure to maternal depression will allow her to better understand why some, but not all, children are affected by early life stressors. This will help in understanding susceptibility, plasticity, and resiliency in children’s development.

The second component of her research involves designing and testing interventions (such as mindfulness and coping strategies) to help in self-regulation. She is studying how to best intervene in children who show early disruptions in stress-response systems, such as children who have been exposed to prenatal maternal depression. This would help in discovering novel opportunities for targeting children’s self-regulation through interventions in early educational and clinical contexts.

Her Developmental Neurosciences Research Training Award includes a $5000 annual career development supplement which she used in 2016 to present her work at the annual meeting of the International Society of Developmental Psychobiology (ISDP) in San Diego, USA, the first conference of the Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies (SIPS) in Leiden, Netherlands, and the biennial meeting of the Society of Research in Child Development (SRCD) in Austin, USA.

“Our findings will hopefully contribute to optimizing developmental pathways that support best outcomes for children exposed to early life adversity such as maternal depression – which is one of the earliest and most common risk factors in modern Western societies. ”

— Regula Neuenschwander, Ph.D. University of British Columbia