NARSAD Grantees Discover that a History of Child Abuse and Maternal Separation Are Risk Factors for Mental Illness

Posted: February 22, 2012

Contact: Dianne Ackerman
Phone: (516) 829-0091

NARSAD Grantees Discover that a History of Child Abuse and Maternal Separation Are Risk Factors for Mental Illness

(GREAT NECK, N.Y.) Two recipients of NARSAD Grants from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation have provided new insights into the link between childhood stress and the development of mental illness.

NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Andrea Danese, MD, PhD, found that adults who experience maltreatment as children are twice as likely to develop chronic, long-lasting depression as those without a history of childhood maltreatment. Dr. Danese, an assistant professor at the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and his colleagues also found that maltreated individuals are more likely to respond poorly to treatment for depression. His findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Dr. Danese states: “Prevention and early therapeutic interventions targeting childhood maltreatment could prove vital in helping prevent the major health burden owing to depression. Knowing that individuals with a history of maltreatment won’t respond as well to treatment may also be valuable for clinicians in determining patients’ prognoses. New insights on the treatment of depression in maltreated individuals may come from a better understanding of the biological changes described in these individuals.” Dr. Danese’s previous NARSAD-funded research published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that depressed children with a history of maltreatment have elevated inflammation levels.

NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Heather Brenhouse, PhD, an instructor in Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Boston MA, sought to determine why orphans and children who have been separated from their mothers were at a higher risk of developing mental illness.

Using animal models, Dr. Brenhouse’s research revealed that maternal separation causes a reduction of key interneurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which affect mental health, and that this reduction does not occur until adolescence. (These interneurons play a role in creating gamma waves, a synchronized brain activity that is disrupted in people with schizophrenia.) Her findings were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.  

Dr. Brenhouse notes that because research studies have shown that the effects of early life stress typically do not result in mental illness until adolescence, early intervention may be possible to prevent the development of symptoms.

“Our data was the first to show the efficacy of a preventive pharmacological intervention (anti-inflammatory COX-2 inhibitors) to prevent the delayed effects of early life stress on prefrontal cortex interneurons and working memory. This suggests that the effects of early life stress caused by maternal separation are not inevitable.”

These Young Investigators are among the more than 3,300 scientists the Foundation has supported with funding for mental health research. Since 1987, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation has awarded close to $300 million in over 4,000 NARSAD Grants to scientists worldwide. The Foundation is dedicated to finding the causes, improving treatments and preventing the mental illnesses that affect an overwhelming one-in-four people in the United States.

 “We are very pleased with the recent discoveries made by Drs. Brenhouse and Danese,” said Benita Shobe, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation President and CEO. “Getting us closer to diagnostic tools and establishing early intervention techniques are critically important priorities in mental illness research. These two NARSAD Young Investigator Grantees provide excellent examples of the groundbreaking work we are funding in this area.”

Visit our website for more information:

Publications by Dr. Danese: Nanni V, Uher R, Danese A. Childhood maltreatment predicts unfavourable course of illness and treatment outcome in depression: a meta-analysis. Am J Psychiatry. E-pub Aug 14, 2011.

Danese A, Caspi A, Williams B, Ambler A, Sugden K, Mika J, Werts H, Freeman J, Pariante CM, Moffitt TE, Arseneault L. Biological embedding of stress through inflammation processes in childhood. Mol Psychiatry. 2011 Mar;16(3):244-6.

Publication by Dr. Brenhouse: Brenhouse HC, Anderson SL. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory treatment prevents delayed effects of early life stress in rats. Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Sep 1;70(5):434-440.