NARSAD Independent Investigator Grantee, Gabriel Corfas, Ph.D., is one of the authors of a new study that starts to identify precisely how stress, social isolation, and deprivation early in life can harm children’s brains and lead to behavior and mental health problems later in life. Using animal models, the researchers were able to unravel what happens at the level of cells and proteins as the brain responds to certain stressors. The results of the research were published in the September 14th issue of Science.
Dr. Corfas, a Professor and Senior Associate in Neurology and Otolaryngology at Boston Children’s Hospital, led a team of researchers who looked at the effects of social isolation in mice. They learned that mice raised in isolation not only behave differently, they have thinner insulation around brain cells in a key region of the brain. These changes cause signals to travel more sluggishly through the brain and appear to be irreversible.
In July, another team at the hospital found that children raised in Romanian orphanages had smaller amounts of two types of brain tissue than those who weren’t, but the researchers also saw hints that a degree of rescue was possible: In foster care, one type of tissue involved in brain connectivity seemed to be able to catch up.
Dr. Corfas said his study demonstrates that “we are understanding—starting to understand—the anatomical structure and molecular basis for what people have seen as the effects of experience in humans. The more we understand the mechanism, the closer we are going to be to finding tools to either be able to do early diagnosis of problems, or finding people at risk based on genetic factors, but also to develop potential treatments.”