Irvine, Calif., July 10, 2019 — The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded Dr. Tallie Z. Baram of the University of California, Irvine a five-year, $15 million Silvio O. Conte Center grant. The funding will allow her interdisciplinary team to continue studying how unpredictable parental and environmental signals influence an infant’s vulnerability later in life to cognitive and emotional problems, such as risky behaviors, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2013, Baram, an internationally renowned child neurologist and neuroscientist, received $10 million from the NIMH — which is part of the National Institutes of Health — to create the Conte Center on Brain Programming in Mental Disorders at UCI. Conte Center grants are bestowed on the most promising multidisciplinary and often cross-species approaches to improving the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues.

«We appreciate that the National Institute of Mental Health strategic plan recognizes that most neuropsychiatric disorders originate early in life and are influenced by early-life environments in addition to important genetic factors,» said Baram, UCI’s Danette Shepard Chair in Neurological Studies.

«The complexity of teasing out the relative contribution of genetics and environment and identifying new parameters of an infant’s or child’s experience requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves both animal and human research,» she said. «Investigators at UCI have identified novel and surprising contributors to vulnerability to mental illness. The Conte Center funding will enable us to test the contribution of these early-life factors to vulnerability to mental illness — for example, the vulnerability of Marines who’ve experienced combat to developing post-traumatic stress disorder.»

Her team is capitalizing on a large body of work suggesting that early in life, the environment affects a baby’s cognitive and emotional functioning primarily through signals, or care behaviors, from the mother. The researchers suspect that the pattern of maternal signals — their consistency and predictability, in addition to their general quantity and quality — is key.

In neurobiology, it’s well known that the brain is organized as circuits of interconnected cells and that specific circuits execute functions such as hearing and seeing. In early life, sensory signals and their patterns influence the development of these brain circuits.

Baram, a professor of pediatrics, neurology, and anatomy & neurobiology at UCI, and her investigators propose that the same principles also apply to brain circuits that execute cognitive and emotional functions. Specifically, their animal studies have shown that consistent and predictable maternal signals enhance cognitive and emotional maturation in offspring, while fragmented and unpredictable maternal care constrains it.

During the first phase of the Conte Center grant, the group tracked cohorts of pregnant women and their fetuses and, postpartum, assessed maternal care patterns and infant and child mental outcomes. They found that, as with animals, unpredictable patterns of maternal signals presaged worse memory and emotional functioning in human babies and children.

So the team has shown that, in addition to known factors — such as genetics, parental mental health and socioeconomic levels — the predictability of signals from parents and the environment in early life contributes to emotional and cognitive health in children and adolescents. These discoveries have been replicated by scientists in Europe and are being embraced by many throughout the U.S.

Over the coming five years, UCI’s Conte Center — which now includes researchers from UC San Diego, Chapman University and the University of Denver — will employ cutting-edge technologies combining neurobiological and molecular research with animals, behavioral research with children, and neuroimaging and computational and statistical analyses across species to gain an understanding of how these novel factors affect brain circuit development and vulnerability to mental illness in both typical populations and high-risk populations, such as troops who’ve seen combat.

«During Conte Center 1.0, we uncovered new principles of how environmental and maternal signals influence brain wiring,» Baram said. «With Conte Center 2.0, we need to understand how these early-life factors impact the brain to contribute to risk-taking behaviors, drug use, and problems including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. We need to share these discoveries and test them around the world. Importantly, we need to figure out how to predict who is at risk and devise precise, mechanism-based interventions.»

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