Project 3 Summary

Project 3 Summary

Davis_participantsOne out of 17 Americans will suffer from a severe mental illness during his/her lifetime. The origins of mental illness predominantly begin early in life. Over half of mentally ill adults exhibit symptoms before the age of 14. Intervention requires identification of at-risk individuals, evaluation of underlying mechanisms and development of targeted interventions. Achieving these goals requires research that assesses development during the fetal, infant and child periods. We will examine prenatal and postnatal influences that contribute to the development of mental illness during adolescence.

Our novel approach considers the joint role of fetal and infant experiences in determining the emergence of mental illness. Brain development is more rapid during the fetal and infant periods as compared to any stage of the life span. For example, during the fetal period, neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) proceeds at a rate of 250,000 cells per minute. Because of the enormous changes during these periods, experiences can dramatically influence development. Collaborative animal research from this Center has identified fragmentation of maternal signals as a key influence that exerts lifelong consequences.

We will evaluate the role of fragmented maternal signals for human development. There are several novel questions that we will ask in the context of this Center.

  1. Does fragmentation of maternal behavior increase risk for mental illness in humans?
  2. Do the fragmented maternal signals during the fetal and infant periods jointly determine risk for mental disease?
  3. Are there sex differences in fetal and infant responses to fragmented maternal signals? Do these sex differences contribute to sex differences in risk for mental illness?

To answer these questions we will examine the influence of maternal mood (e.g., anxiety and depression) and maternal behavior on the fetus and infant. We will evaluate how these early experiences influence infant and child development. Further, we will determine whether these early experiences influence mental health during the transition to adolescence.

You can read the Project 3 Technical Description for a more detailed explanation.