This summer, the University of Rochester's Mt. Hope Family Center will begin a large-scale, comprehensive study of the effects of child abuse. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the five-year, $2.25 million research project aims to understand how a complex host of factors—from genetics and family environment to hormonal regulation, personality traits, and brain activity—influence the well-being and mental health of children who have experienced child maltreatment.
"What is novel about this study is that it seeks to understand these children from multiple perspectives—neurocognitive, neuroendocrine, and neurophysiological as well as psychological," said Center Research Director Fred Rogosch. "We will obtain very diverse assessments on the same child, providing a holistic view of the multiple ways in which child maltreatment affects development," Rogosch said.
"Our focus on what factors support resilience is equally important," Rogosch added. "Many abused children go on to lead productive, well-adjusted lives. Identifying these pathways to success is vital because it says to children and adults that 'they are not doomed' by an abusive childhood."
Rogosch and Dante Cicchetti, McKnight Presidential Chair and Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and the former director of the Mt. Hope Family Center from 1984 to 2005, are principal investigators of the study.
Research and popular understanding of child abuse have traditionally looked at the psychological and behavioral consequences of maltreatment. For example, the links between early trauma and depression, suicide, substance abuse, and aggression are well documented.
But more recent studies show that early trauma often also affects basic biological systems. Abuse during critical developmental years of life can alter gene expression, disrupt normal hormonal responses to stress, and affect brain development. To date, however, studies of these biological consequences have been limited to small groups of abused children, primarily those hospitalized with mental illnesses.
This new study involves a large group of 500 children, aged 8 to 10, half of whom have a history of abuse or neglect and all of whom come from low-income backgrounds. Rogosch explained that by selecting participants with similar environments, researchers will be able to differentiate the effects of maltreatment from the general stress of poverty.
Participants will attend a weeklong recreational day camp conducted by the center. "The camp setting provides an excellent opportunity to learn from these children," Rogosch explained. The program offers a nurturing environment while at the same time giving staff extended opportunities to get to know the children's personalities, to evaluate their relationships with peers and parents, and to measure the extent of any mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or disruptive disorders. In terms of biological consequences, researchers will track a variety of physiological responses including brain activity and the regulation of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. The study also will investigate whether specific gene variations are protective against trauma-related psychopathology.
Ultimately, these multiple approaches will be integrated into a more holistic understanding of how child abuse affects both physical and mental health. That understanding, according the investigators, can inform prevention and intervention initiatives to improve the lives of traumatized children and impede the development of mental illness later in life.
Established in 1979, the Mt. Hope Family Center is recognized internationally for integrating scientific research with evidence-based intervention and prevention services for at-risk children and families. The Center helps Rochester area children and families cope with exposure to violence, trauma, mental illness and maltreatment while at the same time improving treatments for families around the world.