Current Research

Assessing Maternal Neurobiology and Infant Stress:

Lyons-Ruth (PI) & Teicher (Co-PI)

Childhood adversity accounts for 50-75% of the population attributable risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide. Recent work has also documented enduring effects of childhood maltreatment on adult neurobiology, including alterations in cortical and limbic structures and reprogramming of HPA-axis mediated stress responses. We currently know very little, however, about how these neurobiological sequelae of chronic childhood adversity shape the vital adult activity of caring for an infant and how this in turn may affect the early brain development of the infant.

Our current program of research seeks to assess maltreatment-related neurobiological alterations in the maternal brain and how they may affect transmission of the impact of adversity from mother to child. The effects of maternal neurobiological alterations on mother-infant interaction and maternal and infant stress response will be evaluated as potential pathways of transmission. In addition, we will evaluate longitudinally whether maternal adversity leads to impairments in infant stress regulation, amygdala hypertrophy, and altered functional connectivity at one year of age.

Childhood adversity and disrupted parenting are the root preventable causes for a host of medical and psychiatric disorders, including addiction, that result in billions of dollars in health care expenditures. A detailed understanding of underlying mechanisms and mediating factors contributing to these costly outcomes of early adversity is necessary to design well-targeted early interventions to preempt these negative consequences.

Funded by NICHD 1R01HD079484 Neurobiology of Mothering and Infant Stress
C0-PIs: Dr. Karlen Lyons-Ruth, Cambridge Hospital, Dr. Martin Teicher, McLean Hospital, and Dr. Ellen Grant, Children's Hospital

The AMBIANCE Project

The AMBIANCE Project, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant (SSHRC-PDG) in Canada, is a research and community partnership aimed at validating and implementing an observational tool for use in family services settings. This collaborative and applied research project aims to bridge the knowledge-to-practice gap in child and family services. The AMBIANCE observational tool is anchored in attachment research and possesses strong psychometric properties. The benefit of observational measures is that they are strongly associated with child outcomes. The development of a practical and empirically-supported observational assessment tool that can be used by practitioners will aid family services agencies and program directors in intervention planning, staff training, and risk screening activities.

Psychopathology and Controlling Behavior in Adolescence

Lyons-Ruth (PI)

The three major aims of the study are as follows:

  1. To develop and validate a coding protocol for identifying controlling-punitive, controlling-caregiving, and other insecure-disorganized behavior in adolescence.
  2. To assess the degree to which adolescent disorganized/controlling attachment strategies are associated with adolescent psychiatric morbidity.
  3. To assess whether overall relational risk in infancy is an important antecedent of disorganized/controlling attachment strategies in adolescence, with other variables controlled.

Translational Measures of Anhedonia in Humans and Rats

Pizzagalli (PI) & Lyons-Ruth (Co-PI)

The four major aims of the study are as follows:

  1. To investigate the effects of chronic life stressors, including maltreatment and deviant care in infancy, on hedonic capacity among depressed and non-depressed individuals using an objective, laboratory-based measure of anhedonia.
  2. To investigate the effects of acute stress on hedonic capacity and brain mechanisms underlying stress-induced impairments in hedonic capacity.
  3. To develop and evaluate an animal analogue of the signal-detection task.
  4. To investigate the effects of early maternal separation on hedonic capacity in rodents.

The Serotonergic System and Self- or Other-Damaging Behavior

Sasvari-Szekely (PI) & Lyons-Ruth (Co-PI)

The three major aims of the study are as follows:

  1. To investigate the relations between candidate gene polymorphisms related to serotonin neurotransmitter function and antisocial or borderline features in young adulthood in the full US sample.
  2. To replicate in a Hungarian sample of young adults the preliminary findings in the US sample of a relation between the short allele of the 5HTTLPR and impulsive self- and other-damaging behaviors.
  3. To investigate the relative contributions of the serotonergic system and extent of maltreatment, as well as their interaction in the development of young adult borderline and antisocial traits.

Genetic and Caregiving Effects on Disordered Attachment

Lyons-Ruth (PI)

The three major aims for this collaborative study are as follows:

  1. To assess whether polymorphisms of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) and serotonin transporter (5-HTT) candidate genes constitute genetic risks for disorganized attachment strategies in infancy or for aspects of psychopathology in childhood and adolescence.
  2. To assess whether maternal atypical caregiving behaviors are associated with maternal genotypes of the above-mentioned candidate genes.
  3. To assess whether an additive or interactive statistical model best represents the interplay of genetic diathesis and maternal caregiving behavior in the prediction of disorganized attachment in infancy, once both maternal and offspring genetic contributions are accounted for, pooling data from the collaborating labs.

Attachment and Risk in Early Adolescence

Kobak (PI) & Lyons-Ruth (Co-PI)

This study is investigating three hypotheses:

  1. Maternal non-autonomous and Unresolved status on the Adult Attachment Interview increases maternal vulnerability to disregulated HPA axis responses to stress.
  2. Maternal stress reactivity increases risk to adolescent children of substance abuse and psychopathology.
  3. Maternal attachment effects on adolescent adaptation will be mediated by quality of parent-child interaction, family instability, and family conflict and cohesion.

Research Collaborators

Project Director: Dr. Sheri Madigan (University of Calgary)
  • Dr. Karlen Lyons-Ruth (Harvard Medical School)
  • Dr. André Plamondon (Université Laval)
  • Dr. George Tarabulsy (Université Laval)
  • Dr. Chantal Cyr (Université du Québec à Montréal)
  • Dr. Heidi Bailey (University of Guelph)
  • Dr. John Haltigan (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Hospital for Sick Children)
  • Dr. Nicole Racine (University of Calgary)
  • Catherine Borland-Kerr (Family & Children's Services of Guelph & Wellington County)
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