NEW ORLEANS -- When doctors look at brain images of children exposed to trauma, the "scars" are as clear as a broken bone on an X-ray. Those brain changes can affect moral judgment and behavior.
Now a local doctor has important research that shows the way children are treated, not only changes their brains and behavior, but potentially how long they live.
If you want to know how crucial it is for children, beginning at a very young age, to have loving parents and a positive, encouraging environment, ask Tulane's Dr. Stacy Drury. She's an expert in psychiatry and genetics, and along with other doctors, has been part of groundbreaking research.
In 2000, she began studying the effects of hundreds of thousands of children growing up in Romanian orphanages after the revolution 10 years earlier.
"Prior to our research, no one could say for sure that being cared for in a home setting with a foster family was better or worse than being cared for in an institutional setting," said Dr. Drury, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry, department of pediatrics at Tulane. She is also a geneticist. Her work has been with children exposed to traumatic experiences or illness.
After setting up ideal foster homes in Romania and helping those parents develop the important attachment relationship with ideal parent child interaction, the doctors learned important information useful for all parents.
The children's brain functioning got better. It wasn't just that they didn't have depression, their growth and intelligence and language were all better.
"Children, particularly little kids, need to have a nurturing, very one-on-one type of relationship with a caregiver. And that can be protective, not just in terms of psychological well-being, but in terms of over all biology," she explained.
Then in the next study, the doctors looked at the children's genes, specifically the biological clock ticking inside of every cell, called telomeres. When those are shortened in us, people are sicker, there's more diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer risk, depression and mental health illness.
Smoking, cancer, and stress, make telomeres shorter. The cell dies sooner. And what the study found was that early adversity made your biological clock tick faster.
"The more time that a girl had spent in institutional care, right when we did the beginning of the study, so at about two years of age, the shorter their telomeres were," said Dr. Drury.
Boys had the same outcome but a little later.
Now the team Dr. Drury is on, is looking to see if the intervention of putting children in loving, foster care can lengthen those telomeres.
Dr. Drury is now also studying communities in New Orleans. How do the positive things in the culture affect our cells, and how do all the negative things from Hurricane Katrina -- to the crime, to a lack of solid family life -- affect our cells?
To join the study, call 504-988-1438. She is looking for 4 to 14-year-olds.
And science has long proven that one way to lengthen your telomeres on your cells -- exercise.