Tulane psychiatrist wins national award for research that shows how trauma seeps across generations


The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has selected Tulane child psychiatry professor Dr. Stacy Drury to receive the 2018 Norbert and Charlotte Rieger Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement.

The award recognizes the most significant paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry by a child and adolescent psychiatrist within the last year. It’s a record fourth time a Tulane child psychiatrist has won the prestigious award for groundbreaking research in the field. Representing more than 9,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists worldwide, the AACAP is the leading authority on children’s mental illnesses.

The academy singled out Drury’s research into how early childhood trauma can have negative health consequences that seep across generations. The research showed that a biological marker of an infant’s ability to regulate stress was influenced not only by the amount of stress the child’s mother experienced during pregnancy but also by a mother’s life course experiences with stress. Her paper, “Thinking Across Generations: Unique Contributions of Maternal Early Life and Prenatal Stress to Infant Physiology,” was published in November.

Drury and collaborators recruited mothers during pregnancy to try and understand how a mother’s experiences, both before and during pregnancy, influence their infants’ development. Mothers reported on their stress during pregnancy as well as their own adverse childhood experiences before the age of 18. At four months of age, Drury’s research team measured the infant’s respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) during an interaction with their mother. RSA is a marker of the parasympathetic nervous system and considered an indicator of how well one can adapt to changes in the environment. RSA is the variation in heart rate we experience when we breathe and differences in RSA are linked to lifespan mental and physical outcomes. For the most part higher RSA suggests an individual is more able to adapt to changes and stressors in their environment.

“People who have high RSA or a lot of RSA reactivity when stressed tend to be more adaptable or resilient,” Drury said. “What our study showed was that moms’ adverse childhood experiences took away some of that flexibility in babies. It showed that things that happened even before a mom gets pregnant can leave lasting traces in her child and, what is really new about this study, is that we showed that these are different than prenatal stress.”


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