Lecture – Effects of Stress and Adversity on the Brain and Body

Available with English captions.

Presented by Audrey R. Tyrka, MD, PhD, Brown University Medical School – Women in Medicine & Science Month lecture

Research shows that many individuals who experience stress, anxiety, and trauma at a young age develop psychiatric conditions later in life. Also, studies indicate that children who face violence, poverty, neglect, abuse, and other stressors while growing up have higher rates of physical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma, when they reach adulthood.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • The body and brain systems changed by childhood stress and adversity
  • Recent studies into the potential links between childhood trauma and the development of adult psychiatric and physical disorders

In this lecture, Tyrka reviews the literature and recent findings on the biological effects of stress and adversity. She focuses on childhood adversity and trauma and explains how these may be pathological mechanisms of disease risk. She discusses research suggesting that childhood stress and trauma have a strong impact on the hormonal, metabolic, and cellular systems that underlie many psychological and physical disorders.

Tyrka presents research findings from adult and animal studies showing how trauma and stress can affect the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates several physiological systems and coordinates stress response.

She also explores research into the ways stress and adversity can lead to physical issues, such as pain, stiffness, and physical disability. Investigations have examined how these biochemical stressors can lead to an elevation of inflammation and impact immune cells.

Drawing on her own work, Tyrka describes a study she and her colleagues developed to measure lifetime contextual stress.

The investigators looked at children aged 3 to 5 from mixed-race families in Rhode Island. About half of the children in the study had been maltreated and impoverished. Tyrka and her team conducted interviews and questionnaires with the families and assessed their children’s exposure to trauma. The researchers also took saliva samples to look at mitochondrial DNA to measure potential relationships to psychiatric disorders and changes in behavior.

Tyrka and her team are conducting a follow-up study on children around age 10. This work involves visits to the children’s parents, measurement of the children’s activities, such as sleep, and assessments of physician and child welfare records. The group takes hair, saliva, and stool samples. They also examine behavioral and cognitive phenotypes that relate to psychiatric disorders and health conditions.

This study and many others, Tyrka asserts, can help us better understand the links between biology and childhood stress and adversity. This understanding could lead to more accurate assessments of the risks facing young people, which could help them address psychiatric and medical conditions later in life.