How do early-life traumas get under our skin? A researcher details his quest for the stress-causing mechanism.
By the late 1990s, our group at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research had identified robust connections between early adversity and lifelong anxiety and stress, leading to problems in social relationships and mental and physical health—and even to shorter lives. What we needed was an explanation for why this was happening: How does early-life stress “get under the skin”?
Enter Michael Meaney, a professor at McGill University who specialized in neurology, stress, maternal care, and gene expression. He had been studying rodents displaying stress dysregulation (SDR), who were over-reactive to stressors and stayed in a stressed-out state longer. He had discovered physiological differences and behavioral problems in rats who’d been deprived of maternal nurturing, which aligned with previous studies, but he also arrived with a brand-new and as yet unpublished finding. He had actually found a biological mechanism—a process that seemed to explain why those who experienced stress early in life had so much trouble thereafter. As he explained what he had learned, we suddenly realized that this was the missing piece of our puzzle. To read more from Daniel P. Keating, click here.