CEHD News Institute of Child Development

CEHD News Institute of Child Development

Discovering child life: An interview with ICD’s child life coordinator

A certified child life specialist engaged in medical play with a patient.

This article originally appeared in CEHD Connect magazine.

In health care-related environments, children and youth may face stressful or traumatic situations that can negatively impact not only their physical and emotional health but also their development. That’s where certified child life specialists (CCLS) step in. As trained professionals, they promote optimum development and coping through medical preparation and education, play, and therapeutic activities. They advocate for patient- and family-centered care and work in partnership with all members of a patient’s medical team.

Sarah Wiebler, MS, CCLS, child life coordinator in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), answered questions about the child life profession and a new master’s program in ICD.

What inspired you to enter the child life field?

As an undergraduate child psychology student in ICD, I developed a passion for working with children as well as a strong interest in the research of how hospitalization can impact a child’s development. I’m grateful to one of my professors, who encouraged me to meet with a child life specialist and pursue a master’s degree in the field. After working as a CCLS for more than 8 years at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, I’m happy to be back where my journey began.

What are trends you see in the child life field?

While pediatric hospitals and clinics still employ most certified child life specialists, we’re seeing more specialists working in settings like pediatric home care and hospice, bereavement programs, camps, nonprofit community support groups, dental settings, and with children of adult patients.

What type of preparation is needed to become a CCLS?

Starting in 2022, the Association of Child Life Professionals, which establishes and maintains professional standards for the field, will require newly credentialed certified child life specialists to have a master’s degree in child life. Last year, ICD launched a master’s in applied child and adolescent development, which offers three tracks: child life, infant and early childhood mental health, and individualized studies. The child life track will prepare students to pursue the child life certification.    

What sets ICD’s master’s program apart from other child life graduate programs?

ICD has a long been a leader in the field of developmental science and research. Developmental science helps us understand how best to communicate with and support children of all ages through traumatic or stressful experiences, such as illness, injury, hospitalization, or grief. Our students will graduate with a deep knowledge of how to best serve children and their families during life’s most challenging moments.

Learn more about ICD’s MA in applied child and adolescent development and the Association of Child Life Professionals.

Chan receives SRCD Dissertation Funding Award

Jenny Yun-Chen ChanJenny Yun-Chen Chan, a doctoral student in the Institute of Child Development, has been awarded a Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) 2017 Dissertation Funding award by the SRCD and the Student and Early Career Council.

These funds are awarded to students whose research proposals merit special recognition and display a strong potential to contribute to the field of child development. The purpose of the award is to fund the research costs and professional development of the proposed dissertation research project.

Chan’s research focuses on how things like play activities, visual contexts, and examiner’s actions affect children’s attention to numbers and interpretation of number words. Her dissertation tests how non-numerical skills such as language and executive function influence mathematical thinking and learning.

Child psychology PhD student attends International Science of Learning Conference

Andrei Semenov works with a colleague during the International Science of Learning Conference

Andrei Semenov, a child psychology doctoral student in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), recently attended the International Science of Learning Conference in Brisbane, Australia, at the University of Queensland Brain Institute as part of a U.S. delegation of graduate students and faculty. The delegation was funded as a National Science Foundation Initiative. 

The event consisted of 3 days of research presentations and educator outreach, and featured speakers from the fields of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and educational psychology. The conference was followed by 2 days of workshops, which were attended by the U.S. delegation of eight graduate students and five faculty members.

During the post-conference workshops, Semenov and the U.S. delegation met with researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute. These workshops addressed research topics, such as new technologies, social and emotional determinants of learning, and multimedia learning. They also covered international collaboration and scientist/educator collaboration. Semenov presented his project on introducing structured family routines to Head Start and Early Head Start families as a way to improve executive function in children.

Gewirtz featured on CEHD Vision 2020 Blog

Dr. Abigail Gewirtz

Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., Lindahl Leadership professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute for Translational Research, and a professor in the Institute of Child Development, recently was featured  on the CEHD Vision 2020 Blog.

In her post, “Project ADAPT Improves Parental Self-Efficacy and Child Adjustment in Military Families, Gewirtz discusses Project ADAPT, which aims to help military families adjust to regular life after returning from deployment and teaches effective communication strategies between parent and child.

According to the blog, parents who participated in Project ADAPT reported feeling better about their parenting, which in turn leads to improvements in the child’s adjustment. The project has also reduced depression, PTSD symptoms, and thoughts of suicide for the parents involved.

Child psychology undergraduate spotlight: Laura Reimann

Child psychology undergraduate student Laura Reimann
Laura Reimann

This profile originally appeared on the UMN Center for Academic Planning & Exploration website.

Laura Reimann, a child psychology undergraduate student, shares why she chose to study child psychology and gives advice for other students pursuing the major.

How and why did you choose your major?

As a freshman, I did an internship at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, and it changed my entire outlook on mass incarceration and the effects it has on children and families. I heard devastating stories of separation, and of parents who knew their incarceration was impacting their children, but did not know how to mitigate those effects. They were scared and uncertain of where their children were and how they were doing. As I completed my internship I realized this was the area I wanted to try and help to change, but I knew that I did not want to be an attorney. So, I approached the child psychology advisor and asked for more information. He gave me some advice about how to choose a major and encouraged me to connect with Dr. Ann Masten. I read more about her research and about the classes in the major and knew this was where I wanted to be!

Please give a description (in your words) of your major including the things you learn, favorite classes, and any challenges you have faced.

The child psychology major is unique because it combines a lot of different class work with field work and research opportunities. During my time as a child psychology major, I have participated in a variety of activities, including field work at the University of Minnesota Child Development Center and have participated in research in the Masten Lab of Risk and Resilience and the Shlafer Lab, which studies the effects of mass incarceration on families.

What types of experiences outside of the classroom have you had relating to your major? (i.e. clubs, jobs, internships, volunteering, study abroad etc.)

I am involved as an officer in the Child Psychology Student Organization where we participate in various events which include community service, hosting guest speakers to talk about topics our members are interested in, and free food! During my first year, I had an internship at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office where I got to see the court system in action and observe the effects of incarceration firsthand, which led to my involvement in research with Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, that systematically examines these effects. My research interests also led me to pursue an undergraduate research assistant position in the Masten Lab of Risk and Resilience, examining risk and protective factors in the lives of children experiencing homelessness and high mobility, under the direction of Dr. Ann Masten. Finally, I work on campus as a peer assistant at the University Honors Program.

In your opinion, what is one thing, or one piece of advice that other students pursuing your major should know?

Find something you are passionate about, get involved, and be assertive! The Institute of Child Development has so much to offer and it is so important to find an issue or area within the field that you are passionate about and find a way to work on it. Whether it is volunteering at a local school or spending your time in a lab doing research, make sure you love it. When you find something that you care about, be assertive and find a way to get involved. Even if you are nervous, approach professors doing research you care about and talk to them about what opportunities they know of that fall within your areas of interest. The undergraduate experience is what you make it, so pursue things you love and do not be afraid to try something new.

Masten discusses resilience in Monitor on Psychology

Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Ann Masten

Ann S. Masten, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), was recently featured in an article appearing in the September 2017 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology.

The article, “Maximizing children’s resilience,” by Kirsten Weir, highlighted new research that examines how to foster resilience in children and adolescents and the importance of early intervention.

According to Masten, the field has shifted from focusing on traits of resilient individuals to looking at resilience from a systems perspective. For example, Masten, along with other researchers, have found that having supportive relationships, including with parents or primary caregivers, is important for healthy development.

“The resilience of an individual depends on drawing resources from many other systems,” Masten says. “A child is embedded in interactions with friends, family, community. The way those other systems are functioning plays a huge role in the capacity of that child to overcome adversity.”

Gewirtz’s ADAPT program in the news

Abigail Gewirtz, Lindahl Leadership Professor, Dept. of Family Social Science, and Institute for Translational Research in Child Development.


Abigail Gewirtz, Lindahl Leadership professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute for Translational Research, was interviewed by WCCO-TV and KSTP-TV about her research program, ADAPT, that supports military families reintegrating following deployment. The unique program provides tools and resources to support positive parenting. A U.S. Department of Defense grant is underwriting  an online version of  ADAPT to serve more military families.

ICD alumna, undergraduate featured in Star Tribune for restorative justice project

Rebecca Shlafer

Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., MPH, an alumna of the Institute of Child Development (ICD), and Laura Reimann, an undergraduate child psychology student in ICD, were recently featured in the Star Tribune for their involvement in Project Teddy Bear, a restorative justice project at a Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minn.

Shlafer, who teaches an honors class titled, Incarceration and the Family, partnered with Diana Poch, a psychologist at Sandstone, to launch the project. Poch had noticed positive behavior changes in inmates who learned how to crochet and were teaching others the craft.

Last semester, Shlafer and her students collected a total of 350 pounds of yarn to provide to the inmates. With the yarn, the inmates crocheted animals for sick children at four Twin Cities Ronald McDonald Houses.

“It was so powerful for my students to learn how many consequences there are to sometimes very limited decisions,” Shlafer said. “They made an impact in a way that really challenged the students’ assumptions about who is in prison for what and why, raising questions around equity.”

Reimann plans to continue to raise awareness about Project Teddy Bear next semester as Shlafer’s teaching assistant. “People have a tremendous capacity to change if given the chance and the resources,” Reimann said. “They are creating something with another human in mind and giving something back to a community that thinks they are only taking.”

Masten awarded 2018 Smith College Medal

Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Ann Masten

Ann Masten, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development, is the recipient of a 2018 Smith College Medal, which recognizes extraordinary Smith College alumnae for their professional achievements and outstanding service.

The Smith College Medal was established in 1962 to recognize alumnae who exemplify in their lives and work “the true purpose” of a liberal arts education. More than 200 Smith alumnae have received the award, including journalist and activist Gloria Steinem and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Masten was one of four alumnae to receive the medal this year.

Masten is a leading psychologist who focuses on competence, risk, and resilience in human development, especially in children and families threatened by adversity. The goal of her work is to inform science, practice, and policy around human adaptation and resilience.

Masten will receive the medal during Smith College’s Rally Day, which will take place on Feb. 21, 2018.

Thompson helps build graduate student exchange with Korean university

CEHD’s Marina Aleixo (center-left) and ICD’s Ross Thompson (center-right) meet with staff at Seoul National University.

Ross Thompson, M.Ed., a lead teacher at the Shirley G. Moore Lab School in the Institute of Child Development, recently traveled to South Korea to build a graduate student exchange with Seoul National University (SNU). Thompson was joined by Marina Aleixo, Ph.D., program director of international initiatives and relations at the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).

During their trip, Thompson and Aleixo visited the SNU lab school, a training site for graduate students, and met with teachers to exchange ideas on research and best practices for early childhood education. Thompson also gave a talk on big body play and integrating early childhood education.

“It was an amazing first meeting with the faculty and grad students at SNU,” Thompson said. “The level of dedication and eagerness to learn displayed by the students shows the workings of a great potential partnership. We look forward to continuing to cultivate our relationship with SNU and its Lab School.”

Koenig receives Sara Evans Woman Scholarship and Leadership Award

Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig, Ph.D.

Melissa Koenig, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Child Development, is the recipient of a 2017 Sara Evans Faculty Woman Scholar/Leader Award.

The award is sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and the Women’s Center. It recognizes women faculty at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who have achieved significant scientific accomplishments, national and international reputations, and who contribute as leaders on campus.

Up to two awards are offered per year, one in science and engineering and one in humanities, arts, and social sciences. As a recipient of a 2017 award, Koenig will receive $5,000 to support her research.

Koenig will be honored during the Celebrating Changemakers 2017 awards program, which will take place on Oct. 19.

Williams Ridge discusses preschool nature education in CEHD Vision 2020 blog

Headshot of Sheila Williams Ridge
Sheila Williams Ridge

Sheila Williams Ridge, M.A., director of the Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School in the Institute of Child Development, recently penned a post for the CEHD Vision 2020 blog.

In her post, titled, “Get Kids Outdoors with Preschool Nature Education Tips for Teachers and Parents,” Williams Ridge discusses the benefits of nature education for preschoolers and how parents and teachers can enable children to have meaningful outdoor experiences.

ICD professor, graduate student present research on mindfulness in education

ICD Professor Philip D. Zelazo delivering a keynote address at the Mindfulness in Education Summer Institute.

Philip D. Zelazo, Ph.D., a Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), and Andrei Semenov, a child psychology doctoral student in ICD, recently presented at the Mindfulness in Education Summer Institute.

The summer institute is a community event hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. The 3-day event aimed to bring together teachers, researchers, clinicians, and practitioners to discuss mindfulness research and ways to promote practices that support wellbeing in school communities.

For the event, Zelazo delivered a keynote address that focused on how mindfulness practice has been shown to promote reflection and executive functions in children and adults.

Semenov’s presentation highlighted findings from curriculum evaluation conducted this past year. The novel curriculum, developed in collaboration with the Center for Spirituality and Healing, introduced mindfulness practice to a cohort of elementary school teachers in an effort to improve teacher wellbeing and promote mindful approaches to student-teacher interactions.

Now accepting applications: Third Annual Diversity in Psychology Program

The Institute of Child Development (ICD) and the Department of Educational Psychology are pleased to support the 3rd Annual Diversity in Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota (UMN).

The program is sponsored by the UMN Department of Psychology and the College of Liberal Arts with support from ICD and the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education and Human Development.

The Diversity in Psychology Program is designed for individuals who are historically under-represented in psychology graduate programs and who are interested in learning about graduate training in psychology, child psychology, and educational/school psychology at the University of Minnesota.

The program will feature a coordinated set of formal and informal experiences designed to familiarize participants with strategies for constructing successful graduate school applications, and to provide them with the opportunity to learn more about the experience of graduate education in UMN psychology departments.

To be eligible to apply, individuals must:

  • be enrolled in a college or university as a junior or senior, or who have graduated within the last two years (i.e., 2015 or thereafter). Individuals currently enrolled in a terminal masters-level graduate program in psychology are also eligible.
  • identify as a member of groups underrepresented in graduate training in psychology, including ethnic and racial minority groups, low-income backgrounds, persons with disability, LGBTQ+, military veterans, and first-generation college students or graduates.

Individuals must also meet one of the following criteria:

  • be committed to pursuing doctoral training in either child psychology or educational/school psychology. OR
  • be committed to pursuing doctoral training in psychology in one of the following programs of research offered by the Department of Psychology: clinical science and psychopathology; counseling psychology; cognitive and brain sciences; industrial/organizational psychology; personality, individual differences, and behavior genetics; quantitative psychology/psychometric methods; or social psychology.

Learn more about how to apply.

CEHD researchers use brain scans to predict autism in high-risk, 6-month-old infants

L-R: Jed Elison, Jason Wolff

College of Education and Human Development researchers contributed to a new study that suggests that patterns of brain activity in high-risk, 6-month-old babies may accurately predict which of them will develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age 2.

The new study was published in Science Translational Medicine and led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Institute of Child Development, and Jason Wolff, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, were study co-authors. The study was conducted by the IBIS Network and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Approximately one out of 68 school-aged children in the U.S. has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and their younger siblings are at a higher risk of developing the condition. “These findings need to be replicated, but that said, we are very excited about the potential to leverage cutting edge technology to advance the search for the earliest signs of autism,” Elison said.

For the study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the brain’s functional connectivity – or how different brain regions work together – in high-risk, 6-month-old infants. The infants were considered high-risk because they have an older sibling with autism. Overall, 59 high-risk infants were included in the study. Eleven of the infants were diagnosed with ASD at 2 years old and 48 were not.

The researchers applied machine learning algorithms to the infants’ brain scans to identify patterns that separated them into the two groups. They then applied the algorithm to each of the infants to predict which infants would later be diagnosed with ASD. The algorithm correctly predicted nine of the 11 infants who were later diagnosed with ASD and all 48 of the infants who were not later diagnosed with the condition.

According to the researchers, if replicated, the results could provide a clinically valuable tool for detecting ASD in high-risk infants before symptoms set in. This in turn would allow researchers to test the effectiveness of interventions on a population of high-risk infants who have been identified as having a greater risk of ASD based on their brain scan at 6 months of age.

“The researchers will now try to confirm their findings in larger groups of children. But they already have provided proof of principle that it’s possible to detect ASD long before children show the first visible signs of the condition,” NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., wrote in a blog about the study. “The findings could pave the way for developing more cost-effective mobile neuroimaging tools, which might be used in early ASD screening.”

In February 2017, Elison and Wolff contributed to a separate study that used MRI scans of high-risk infants conducted at 6 and 12 months of age to accurately predict which infants would later meet criteria for ASD at age 2. The method used in the new study would only require one scan at 6 months of age.

“This is really interdisciplinary science at its very best, and I anticipate it will eventually lead to improved outcomes for children and families,” Wolff said. “The ability to predict autism in infancy opens the door for something that has long been improbable: pre-symptomatic intervention.”

Palmer awarded summer fellowship to research children’s mental health

Alyssa Palmer, a Ph.D. child psychology student in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), was awarded a 2017 Translational Summer Research Fellowship by the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health (ITR).

ITR’s primary mission is to bridge the gap between research and practice in children’s mental health.

The fellowship aims to help graduate students pursue collaborative research projects on the development or expansion of evidence-based prevention or treatment interventions in children’s mental health. Palmer is one of four graduate students who was awarded a fellowship this year.

Palmer’s research will focus on parent self-regulation, parenting quality, and child behavioral outcomes in homeless families.

Greetings from Professor Megan Gunnar

The Gunnar Lab research team continues to study the impact of early experiences through our work with families formed through international adoption and Minnesota-born families. Much of our work over the past year focused on the development of children, teens and also young adults. I am especially grateful for the work
of Professor Rich Lee and his students in the Familee Lab who work with young adults who were adopted from Korea. Rich’s work helps us understand the experience of international adoption as it relates to identity and the experience of discrimination.

The overall goal of the Gunnar Lab’s research is to study stress and the experiences that shape how the body deals with stress. In this newsletter issue, you can read more about our latest research studies examining stress during pregnancy and its effect on the developing fetus, stress during the transition to adolescence, a very challenging time of life, and stress encountered in social situations where children attempt to meet and work with new peers.

Much of our stress work is taking a medical turn as we evaluate the health and physical development consequences of starting our life in harsh and stressful conditions as is the case for many children adopted internationally from orphanages.

Thank you to all the families who have taken part in our research.

~ Regents Professor Megan Gunnar

Puberty Study: Growth and Pubertal Development

By Brie Reid

Throughout evolution, humans have experienced periods of feast and famine. Growing evidence suggests that adversity and height growth stunting early in childhood increases risk for early onset puberty (in girls), obesity, and poorer mental health later in life. Researchers think that this is the case because in the first 1,000 days after conception, our very young, growing bodies determine whether the environment we are growing up in has a lot of resources or has little resources. In this way, our bodies “calibrate” to the environment we expect to grow up in. However, researchers think that early physical adaptations to harsh environments with very little resources may increase later risks of obesity, early onset puberty in girls and metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, because our bodies do not anticipate a shift from resource-poor to resource-rich environments.

We tested this hypothesis with 283 youth aged 7-14 years who participated in the first year of the Puberty Study. We looked at data collected from adopted children’s first medical clinic visit post-adoption and we also looked at data collected from the nurse’s exam, see Figure 1, in the Puberty Study.


Figure 1. Nurses measure participant’s growth using different methods.

On average, adopted youth were shorter (by ~1.6”) and had lower BMI-for-age than their non-adopted peers. Adopted youth also tended to have lower numbers of body fat percentage. On average, both groups of youth were within normal ranges of height, weight, and body fat. There were no differences in waist-to-hip ratios or waist-to-height ratios between groups. A key finding was that there were very few overweight or obese youth in either the adopted or the non-adopted group, which surprised us because nearly one in three children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese in America.

Pubertal Development

Two graphs comparing BMI for age for adopted and non-adopted youth.

Figure 2. No group difference between adoptees and MN born participants.

We found that pubertal status was determined by being older and being heavier for your age. This is just what is expected as bodies typically put on fat to support the pubertal changes in growth. What surprised us is that we found no evidence that the internationally adopted children, many of whom had experienced relatively harsh conditions in orphanages prior to adoption, were going through puberty earlier than the children born into their Minnesota family as seen in Figure 2. We did not see this for either boys or girls.

Previously Height Stunted Adopted Youth Results

Previously height-stunted youth adopted internationally, though still shorter on average, were not found to be at greater risk for high BMI and were also less likely to be in later puberty stages.

Our conclusion?

Early life adversity and height-growth stunting early in life do not always lead to early puberty or obesity in later childhood or adolescence!

Early removal from adversity or later contexts of highly-resourced homes could protect children from long-term impacts on their BMI and the timing of puberty. Subsequent waves of longitudinal data collection will provide a window into pubertal timing across three years to determine if adopted and previously height-stunted youth experience a different pubertal development tempo than non-adopted peers. This tempo could also impact body fat as our sample of participants get older.

Multiple years of follow-up and more precise measures of where children store fat on their bodies and metabolic health are our next steps to ensure we understand the full picture of growth and pubertal development in the context of early challenging life conditions.

New Study Opportunity: Early Stress, Growth, and Metabolic Health Study

New research suggests that early life stress and early height stunting can contribute to later health by impacting the growth, body fat composition, and cardiovascular health. This may mean that experiences in childhood influence our health in adulthood. If we can identify these changes early on, then we can develop interventions to hopefully prevent later health problems.

In the Puberty Study, we did not find that children who were growth-stunted at adoption were becoming overweight as they approached adolescence, so the question for heart health is actually where does the body put its fat. Deep visceral (belly) fat is a risk factor for Type II diabetes and heart disease. You can be normal weight and yet still be at risk by packing fat in deep belly areas.

To be sure that children who were short for their age at adoption and then grew quickly are also heart and body composition healthy, we will be conducting a study using cutting-edge measures of body fat composition and cardiovascular health measures. Personalized results will be given to the parents of each participant and these can be taken to their pediatrician.

For this study we are looking for children and teenagers (ages 8 through 17 years) who were adopted internationally from orphanages or similar institutions.

In addition to personalized results, participants will be compensated for 1 visit to the University of Minnesota to have a full-body DXA scan of body composition, their cardiovascular health assessed, have blood drawn, and answer questionnaires.

If you would like more information about this study, please feel free to email Brie at reidx189@umn.edu

Recalibrating with a Physiological Cup o’ Joe

By Keira Leneman

While we all may experience varying degrees of struggle in getting out of bed and starting the day, our body helps do some of the work for us. Shortly before our eyes open and in the minutes following, a stress hormone called cortisol influences this routine process. The body releases cortisol in response to stressful events, but also regularly throughout the day in a circadian rhythm cycle. Levels are highest early in the morning and then drop throughout the day to the lowest levels in the first half of the night. The cortisol awakening response (CAR) is superimposed on top of the day-night rhythm of cortisol. It consists of a spike in cortisol levels within the first 30-45 minutes after awakening and is considered by some to be a type of preparation for the day, like a cup of coffee. Using saliva samples collected by families in their homes, we are able to gather information about how stress systems might function differently on an everyday basis in children who spent some of their early months living in orphanages before being adopted compared to children born into their Minnesota families.

Figure 3. Group differences in Cortisol Awakening Response
Figure 3. Group differences in Cortisol Awakening Response

A few years ago our research group examined children at the transition to adolescence and found that early in puberty, children adopted from orphanages had more blunted CARs (less pronounced rise in the morning) than non-adopted children. However, when older and farther along in puberty, the adolescents adopted at a younger age had CAR patterns similar to the non-adopted group—they were no longer blunted. This data suggested that puberty might provide a period for recalibration of physiological stress systems, especially when early life adversity was experienced for only a short period of time.

In the Puberty Study, we again collected saliva samples in the time right after waking up. We have only looked at the data from the first year of our study, but are seeing some hints at similar patterns. We have found that as children progress in puberty they show larger “spikes” in cortisol when they wake up. We then examined whether spending your early life in an orphanage affected this cortisol response to awakening. As we had seen before in previous studies, Figure 3 shows that children adopted later (16 months or older) had a smaller spike in cortisol after awakening than children adopted earlier in life (before 16 months) or those born into their families in Minnesota.

So far we have not seen a cortisol awakening response change with puberty, but it is still a possibility as the children in this study get older and are more advanced in pubertal development. As we begin to analyze data from year 2 and year 3, we will be able to look at a wider range of pubertal status to get a better sense whether these patterns are changing throughout this developmental period. Year 2 is almost complete, so we should be able to begin the next level of these analyses shortly.

Investigating the Brain’s Response to Stress

By Max Herzberg

We often take it for granted that different people respond to stress in unique ways. How adolescent’s brains and bodies react to social stress, however, is not yet well understood. When we experience stressful circumstances our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol that helps us to respond appropriately to the source of stress. Research in adults has shown that only about 60% of people produce more cortisol in response to social stress, while the other 40% do not. These researchers have suggested that these differences are related to different patterns of activation in the brain. We are interested in finding out if patterns of brain activation are different in youth who produce a cortisol response compared to those who do not.

Recently our research group has begun a project to answer this question and investigate the differences between adolescents who produce cortisol in response to stress and adolescents who do not. We developed a new social stress test to be used in an MRI scanner. To ensure that the social stress tasks will work in the scanner, we completed
a preliminary study in an MRI simulator. Twenty-two adolescents, ages 11-14 years old, came to the University to participate in our preliminary study. Some of the youths gave a speech about themselves to a pair of judges and then solved math problems out loud, while other youths completed the speech and then answered multiple choice math problems on a screen in the simulator.

Our results indicate that, like adults, not all adolescents produce cortisol in response to giving a speech and doing some math. As expected, approximately 60% of the participants we tested displayed a cortisol response, while the other 40% did not. We call these groups “Responders” and “Non-Responders,” respectively. Figure 4 shows the group-level cortisol response to our social stress test, with both the Responder and Non-Responder groups represented. To follow up on these results we will be starting a full-scale neuroimaging study to investigate differences in brain activation between Responders and Non-Responders this summer.

Figure 4. Group cortisol concentrations across the session. Approximately 60% of participants belong to the Responder group. The gray rectangle represents the time period during which participants delivered their speech and completed the math task.

We will investigate whether brain activity during stress tasks can explain differences between individual’s responses or if patterns of brain activity before and after stress better explain individual differences. Another possible use of our new imaging test will be to investigate whether or not having the support of a parent, friend, or stranger changes the response of the brain and body to stress. This project, and possible future studies, is our first attempt to discover the brain activation in response to stress in adolescents, so we have a lot to learn about the future applications of our findings and how they will inform our understanding of the developing stress system.

To help us learn more about adolescent’s brain response to stress, we encourage families with children 11-14 years old to participate in the Minnesota Imaging Stress Test in Children (MISTiC) Study. Please contact Max Herzberg at mistic.umn@gmail.com.