Dr. Tottenham began her talk at the MIND with the statement that it takes a long time for humans to develop emotion regulation “as any parent can attest to.” Her lecture was part of the MIND Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Talks which both researchers and members of the public attend to learn from scholars studying diverse topics relating to development.
Dr. Tottenham explained that her lab studies early experiences that lead to differences in emotional functioning in adulthood. Dr. Tottenham explained that in children there are key differences in the neural circuits underlying emotion. Specifically, in adults, connections from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala are useful for controlling fearful experiences. Children do not show these connections. However, children show “buffering” of fear when in the presence of a parent. This buffering is so strong that children will even preferentially explore a “fear-conditioned” stimulus if they learned in the presence of their parent. Adolescents and adults do not show these behaviors. Additionally, they show mature PFC-amygdala connectivity.
Why then, does it take so long for this circuitry to develop?
Dr. Tottenham studies this question by asking families to participate who have adopted children from international institutions. In the previously institutionalized children, approximately 60% of 5-9 year olds show a more adult-like pattern in their neural activity. These children show lower anxiety than previously institutionalized peers who do no show the adult-like pattern. The children with the adult-like pattern also do not show the parental buffering seen in typically developing children. This research indicates that the accelerated circuitry development is an adaptation to their harsh environment. There’s a trade-off, however, because showing parental buffering is associated with fewer internalizing problems (such as depression) in adulthood.
The talk was enjoyed by researchers and the public alike. I look forward to seeing further work from Dr. Tottenham.