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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Research Matters: Developmental Science

devmattersFamily and Child Neuroscience Lab
Chris Capistrano
2nd year Graduate student (Developmental Program)
Alex Dufford
1st year Graduate student (Developmental Program)
Andrew Erhart
1st year Graduate student (Developmental Program) 

Poverty is pervasive problem that affects health of two generations - parents and their children. Low income new parents are more likely than their economically advantaged counterparts to experience chronic stress during pregnancy and postpartum periods. High levels of stress then further increase the new parents' risks for harsh parenting and postpartum mood disorders, which then negatively influence their infant's' development. The Family and Child Neuroscience Lab aims to better understand whether and how poverty-related stress influences (1) neural and psychological adjustment to parenting among new parents and (2) neural, cognitive and emotional development among their infants. Such understanding may inform intervention programs that help attenuate (or even prevent) the negative outcomes associated with poverty among two generations - parents and infants. As part of our recruitment initiative, our lab has close partnerships with prenatal and postnatal clinics and programs around the Denver metro area regions and Boulder country including Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) clinics, the Prenatal Plus programs, the Nurse-Family Partnerships, and the Denver Health hospital at the University of Colorado Denver. We have currently two on-going related projects to achieve our aims.

First, in the Infant Development, Emotion, and Attachment Project (IDEA), we aim to identify the role of poverty in neural and psychological adjustment to parenting in new mothers and fathers. This three phase study recruits low- and middle-income first-time mothers and fathers. In Phase I, pregnant women and their partner visit our lab in 22 to 28 weeks gestational age. Participants provide biological samples (saliva, blood, hair) to measure hormone levels that are involved in stress regulation and future parenting, as well as respond to questionnaires and interviews about their mood and poverty-related stress. Once a child is born, in Phase II, we visit the new parents' home during the first 6 months postpartum. In this home visit, we focus on assessing the home environment of the family including physical stressors such as noise and crowding, as well as mother (or father)-infant relationships by observing their interactions. Soon after the home visit, in Phase III, both mother and father are invited to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a neuroimaging scan. During this time, we assess parents' neural activation that are associated with parenting and mood regulation.

Some of our early findings of the IDEA project suggest that new mothers living in poverty exhibit reduced neural responses to infant cry sounds in brain regions involved in emotion information processing. This link between poverty and maternal brain response to infant cry was then driven by higher levels of distress reported by mothers living in poverty. We hope the findings can provide scientific evidence for programs to reduce maternal distress and promote positive mother-infant relationships.

Second, in the Study of Healthy Infant Neurodevelopment of Emotion Project (SHINE), we follow up with the families who participated in the IDEA project, and aim to understand how poverty and parenting quality influence infant development at around age 1. The study includes two phases. In Phase I, we visit the family's home again, and conduct cognitive and socioemotional assessments with infants. This home visit also allows us to study mother-infant relationships and collect biological samples to measure infants' stress and emotion regulation. The second part of the study is a neuroimaging scan of the infant. While infants are naturally sleeping, we gather neuroimaging data of infant brain's structure and functional connectivity. We aim to elucidate specific poverty-related risk factors for the developing brain in infancy, which can provide scientific support for the importance of early interventions.