Infancy and Early Childhood Studies

The portfolio of research programs in the early childhood programs and associated laboratories focuses on the impact of perinatal events including toxin exposure, of emotional and attentional regulatory processes, the psychology and neurobiology of early attachment relationships, and the efficacy of attachment based interventions for infants and for parents. The active areas of research are:

  • The effects of biological and environmental high risk conditions on the early development of arousal and attention regulatory capacities: Broadly covered by the rubric of studies of behavioral teratology, this area defines an ongoing longitudinal study of children exposed to parental substance abuse (primarily cocaine) prenatally as well as parental stress. The oldest children in these cohorts are 16 years. In this area, we have collaborators from around the world as well as Yale and are addressing questions such as the intergenerational transmission of risk for substance abuse and gene-environment interaction models that are involved in early substance use and subsequent addiction. Working with collaborators in the department of psychiatry, we are studying the impact of prenatal exposure on the neural circuitry of stress reactivity and reward that is central to addiction. Using dense array electrophysiology, we also study cortical maturation and differences in cortical response in exposed and non-exposed adolescents.
  • The neurophysiology of attachment relationships is another topic of focus in the early childhood laboratory. In these studies, using electrophysiological methods, we are examining the impact of early attachment experiences on school-age children’s response to stress and on college-age adults ability to respond to conflict-laden cognitive challenges. Each of these areas of investigation explores how early social attachments impact emotional regulatory systems and in turn capacities for learning and information processing.
  • The impact of economic adversity on young children’s emerging executive control functions is a second ongoing longitudinal study in the laboratory. In this effort, we turn our attention to the impact of economic deprivation on four to eight year old children’s ability to learn as assessed by measures of inhibition, working memory, and planning. In collaboration with an economist at the School of Public Health, we are also studying patterns of economic change for families living close to the poverty line, that is, how families shift in and out of poverty and the consequent impact on their children.
  • The role of anxiety in recovery from anesthesia and surgery in children with Zeev Kain, M.D. in anesthesiology is another area of very active, and longstanding, work in our laboratory. From studying the impact of parental presence in the operating room to investigating the efficacy of parental preparation programs for children undergoing surgery, this line of work studies the short and long-term impact of the stress of surgery on children’s behavior and stress response systems.
  • The neural circuitry of parental attachment is another area of work that involves multiple collaborators (James Leckman, James Swain, Robert Schultz) and examines neural changes associated with the transition to parenthood among first-time and veteran parents. Consonant with our laboratory’s theme of working with high-risk conditions, we are currently extending this work to studies of substance-using mothers. Understanding the neural mechanisms that are critical to parental investment in an infant will facilitate more refined and presumably earlier interventions during pregnancy and in the immediate postpartum period to help parents invest in and provide sufficient and necessary care for their infant despite the earlier compromises they may bring to their parenting role.
  • Consonant with our work on the basic neurobiology of parenting is our effort to develop interventions for high risk first time parents. Minding the Baby is an intervention program beginning during pregnancy and extending to the child’s second birthday. We are currently in a randomized control trial evaluation of the efficacy of this attachment based intervention effort that takes place in one of New Haven’s long-established community health care clinics, the Fair Haven Community Health Care Center.