The IAC key note speakers were of a fantastic standard and the knowledge gained from each of their presentations could fill an entire blog post in its own right. In lieu of a thesis-sized blog though, I thought I’d attempt to summarise what I found most interesting from Day 1.
First up was Dr Edward Barker, who was presenting on the role of DNA methylation in the link between early adversity and child and adolescent psychopathology. In amongst a fantastic overview of the twists and turns that epigenetic research has taken through the field of child and adolescent mental health in recent years, a highlight was hearing about the recent work from the research group at King’s, including studies led by Charlotte Cecil and Esther Walton. The group have been using ALSPAC data to look at DNA methylation at birth and age 7, and the trajectories of ADHD symptoms in the kids up until age 15. The stand-out part for me was that, due to the novel (and large!) sample offered by the ALSPAC study, the group have been able to conduct methylome-wide analysis of ADHD symptomology in this sample from birth to adolescence. In amongst a number of epigenetic studies which are cross-sectional in design and generally focus on a handful of candidate genes, this approach makes their findings really unique! Following the talk, papers from Ted’s research group, which have been published in the last year-or-so, were quickly added to my ‘must read soon’ list (a list which only continued to grow throughout the conference!).
Next up was Prof. Edmund Sonuga-Barke who presented on the follow-up data from the English and Romanian Adoptees Study, now that the participants are in their early 20s. The exceptional circumstances of this sample provides us with a unique understanding of the long-term effects of early exposure to adverse experiences, and specifically institutional deprivation. By splitting the sample into UK adoptees who did not experience deprivation, Romanian adoptees who experienced less than 6 months in an institution, and Romanian adoptees exposed to more than 6 months in an institution, Prof. Sonuga-Barke and his colleagues found that, compared to UK controls, Romanian adoptees with >6 months in an institution had persistently higher rates of autism spectrum disorder, disinhibited social engagement, and inattention and over-activity, as well as lower educational achievement, and higher unemployment. By comparison, the Romanian group who had spent less than six months in institutional care had similar low levels of symptomology across most ages and outcomes when compared to the UK controls. At the very beginning of an event aiming to draw together research outlining just how fundamental early nurturance is in determining the life course of today’s children, the presentation of these findings couldn’t have been more timely.
The final key note of the day came from Prof. Mary Dozier who gave a highly comprehensive insight into the work of the Attachment and Biobehavioural Catch-up (ABC) intervention, which aims to help caregivers provide nurturing care to their infants. This talk of course felt especially relevant given the nature of the Healthy Start, Happy Start study. The intervention involves weekly one-hour home-visits across 10 weeks. Most interesting for me was the concept of “in the moment” feedback on parent-child interactions, which involves the ‘parent coach’ offering comments every minute-or-so throughout the hour-long interaction. Specifically, Prof. Dozier talked us through an RCT designed to assess the implementation and effectiveness of ABC, compared to a control intervention, with families who were considered to be at-risk by child protective services. In terms of child outcomes, differences in attachment security (52% secure classification in ABC vs. 33% in control), normative diurnal patterns of cortisol production, inhibitory control, and emotion regulation, were seen between the ABC and control group. Significant differences were also seen in parental delight, sensitivity, and intrusiveness in parent-child interactions, as well as neural activity. The highlight of Mary’s talk was a montage of videos from a family’s 10 weeks on the ABC programme. Statistically significant results can tell you a lot, but there’s something really quite moving about seeing for yourself the dynamics of an entire family shift over just a couple of months, to remind you of the true power of parenting.