Amie Hane presents research on childhood development

Associate Professor of Psychology Amie Hane lectured about her research on the longterm effects of mother-infant interactions. Photo courtesy of Alejandra Davila.
Associate Professor of Psychology Amie Hane lectured about her research on the longterm effects of mother-infant interactions. Photo courtesy of Alejandra Davila.

Amie Hane, associate professor of psychology, delivered a presentation, “From the Tide Pool to the Stars… and Back Again: Early Caregiving and Human Neurobehavioral Development,” last Thursday as part of the faculty lecture series.

Hane is a developmental psychologist who specializes in developmental neuroscience, parent-infant mental health and behavioral pediatrics. She is also a member of the department of pediatrics and psychology at the Columbia University Medical Center, where she serves as the director of behavior coding for the nurture science program. She came to the College as an assistant professor of psychology in 2006.

She focused her lecture on the interactions between mothers and infants and how these interactions impact children later in life. In her research, Hane takes smaller organisms, such as rats, and uses what she learns about them to create research studies for humans. “My study of human development has really brought me back to a place where indeed the organisms found in tide pools have offered really compelling and insightful informtion,” Hane said.

She has discovered that quality mother-infant interaction is associated with positive outcomes for the child. Hane referred to the Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire (ACE) which consists of questions about exposure to parental abuse, sexual abuse, feelings of lack of love from family, feelings of lack of basic resources such as clothes, shelter, food and water and an alcoholic or drug-addicted family member, among other adversities that a child might face in a home. 

“[ACE] is essentially a checklist,” Hane said. “The magic number according to the public health initiative is four. Four yes’s on these questions put you at a substantially higher risk for a shorter life span and all of these negative outcomes.”

Hane added: “Risk factors rarely occur in isolation. That’s known as the cumulative deficit hypothesis. We need to get underneath what is happening in the ecology of early human care.”

She also believes that, during these early years, children may be adapting in some ways. “Adversity in the early ecology may program the system for stress,” Hane said.

Hane worked with infants and their mothers to develop a postnatal programming system modeled after research conducted with rodents. She found that a less nurtured rodent was more likely to have a higher startle response and be behaviorally fearful and less likely to explore.

“I wanted to know, does this model apply to humans? That was my first line of research,” Hane said.

She observed mothers and infants both at home and in the lab and focused on the subtle interactions between the two. Through her research, she discovered that infants with low-quality care showed profile right frontal EEG asymmetry, which is associated with negative effect. She concluded that early maternal caregiving behavior reduces stress reactivity and peer aggression during childhood.

Hane then discussed the stress response system in the human body and spoke about how researchers discovered that motherly care for infants impacts their cortisol levels, a hormone released in the body during stressful circumsances. This finding indicated that the quality of maternal care is regulated physiologically.

Researchers have also found another adaption model in humans. They discovered that those who face childhood adversity show a greater neurological response when exposed to adversity later on in adulthood. This is called dependent reactivation.

The adaption mechanism seen in humans can be traced back to smaller tide-pool creatures such as snails. When snails were taken from two different tidal pools, one where there was a high risk of predation and one where there was a low risk of predation, and placed in pool of predators, the ones originating from high-risk tide pools were better able to mount a defense.

“This model, which is relatively new, is what we are working on. We need to dig further under the skin here and more intensely,” Hane said.

Columbia asked Hane to apply her research about maternal sensitivity to the neonatal-intensive care unit (NICU). Here, infants have little to no interaction with their mothers due to the intensely stressful atmosphere of the NICU for both the mother and child. Hane worked to develop a program in order to allow mothers and infants to establish a connection, despite the hardships associated with communication, upon release from the NICU and in the late stages of treatment. She discovered that eye contact, vocal ex-change, communication of emotion and direct coaching, among other things, improves maternal care prior to discharge.

She now turns her hopes and research to prevention in efforts to increase maternal sensitivity and maternal caregiving behavior. “I hope I have inspired you to think in terms of prevention,” she said.

Comments (3)

  1. If you are a snail in a tidepool, it sounds like it is good for your evolution to be stressed out about predation. But that same stress is not life-supporting if you are a human baby, it seems. Because we’re not snails? How is the research connecting these facts?

  2. Jen, you are spot-on. For snails and humans, there is a trade-off between what is adaptive in a harsh ecology, and the costs of that adaptation (for the snail, smaller bodies and thicker snails; for the human chronic neuroendocrine stress activation that eventually results in a ‘blunted’ stress response)–and what is no longer adaptive when the ecology changes. For humans this may be because early adversity programs the system for activation of stress, which is adaptive in the context of adversity, but costs the human across the lifespan as stress responses are re-activated more readily in less adverse contexts that share features of the original stressor. For instance, if caregiving in infancy programs the system for stress, then social interactions later, with peers or when one becomes a parent, may lead to re-activation of a stress response that was once adaptive, but no longer serves the individual well, and instead leads to lifelong costs associated with stress-related illnesses. These mechanisms may underlie the documented associations between adverse childhood experiences and poor health outcomes.

  3. Make that For the snail–smaller bodies and thicker shells; a protective, but heavier burden.

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