Hazards to Early Development: The Biological Embedding of Early Life Adversity

Charles Nelson - Biological Psychiatry


The number of children under 18 years has increased worldwide over the past decade. This growth spurt is due, in part, to remarkable progress in child survival. Alas, surviving early hazards like prematurity or infectious disease does not guarantee that children’s development will not be compromised by other hazards as they grow older. Throughout the world, children continue to be confronted with a large number of biological and psychosocial challenges that greatly limit their developmental potential.


In this talk I will focus on two strands of work that reflect very different types of adversity: the effects of early, profound psychosocial deprivation and the effects of growing up in a low resource urban center where children are exposed to a large number of both biological (e.g., malnutrition) and psychosocial (maltreatment) stressors. In the case of the former, I will review the most recent findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a randomized controlled trial of foster care as an intervention for early institutionalization. In the case of latter, I will review recent findings from a large study taking place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a variety of biological (e.g., inflammation) and neuroimaging measures (e.g., EEG, fNIRS, MRI) are being obtained.


Collectively, the research demonstrates the differential effects of neglect vs. adversity on different biological and behavioral systems.


The data highlight the value of conceptualizing neglect as an absence of species expectant-experience that compromises neuronal processes during sensitive periods, and studying the effects of other adversity utilizing stress-research frameworks