Advances in the basic sciences of development are forcing a paradigm shift in our understanding of the early childhood origins of lifelong health and prosperity (versus disease and poverty). Early social and environmental experiences (the ecology) and the genetic predispositions (the biology) influence the development of adaptive behaviors, learning capacities, lifelong physical and mental health, and future economic productivity. The new integrated approach is referred to as the ecobiodevelopmental framework.
Life-course studies, like the Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE) Study and others, have demonstrated strong associations between various forms of early childhood adversity (e.g., abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or substance abuse) and a wide array of less than optimal adult outcomes in health (obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancer), mental health (depression, suicide, substance abuse), and prosperity (financial woes or difficulties at work). Despite these well-established associations between the early childhood ecology and lifelong developmental trajectories, the biology underlying these associations remained unclear – until recently (See below).
The burgeoning field of epigenetics suggests that clues from the ecology – the physical, social, and emotional milieu – literally alter the way the inherited genetic blueprint is read. The term epigenetics refers to those mechanisms that change gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. We now know that many epigenetic mechanisms (like DNA methylation and histone deacetylation) are activated by the physiologic mediators of the stress response (like cortisol and adrenaline). In this way, the early childhood ecology is biologically embedded – altering the way the blueprint is utilized in this generation as well as the next.
After NIH designated the 1990’s as the “Decade of the Brain,” advances in neuroscience revealed the critical role that experiences (and the neural activity generated by experience) play both in determining how the brain wires itself during development (the foundational architecture) and in how it re-wires itself in response to changes in the environment (plasticity). Rudimentary neuronal pathways lay the foundation for more complex circuits, just like rudimentary developmental skills pave the way for more sophisticated skills. Because the brain’s overall cellular plasticity declines with age, it is essential that early childhood experiences lay a sturdy foundation for a lifetime of learning, healthy behaviors, and wellness. The figure below is from the AAP Technical Report on Toxic Stress.
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