Scientists sure do love their stressed-out baby animals. Yesterday we learned about the dangers of marrying a stressed zebra finch — and today a study reveals that baby monkeys who endure scary separations from their moms can feel the ill effects throughout life.
According to the BBC, researchers looked at rhesus monkeys who had to be taken from their moms because "they were at risk from an inexperienced mother, the mother lacked breast milk or the baby would not survive in rainy, cold weather" (at least in this case, the scientists didn't cause the stress on purpose). They found that even after three years of subsequent normal socialization, the monkeys had lower than average level of cortisol, a hormone important in dealing with stress. They also had a slowed-down physical response to stressful situations, and their behavior tended to be more anxious and less social. Study co-author Dr. Andrea Danese says the findings mirror what we know about humans:
If you take studies in humans who have experienced loss I think the findings are quite consistent. Children who lose parents or are separated from parents tend to show more anxious behaviour, and tend also to have changes in the same type of hormones that were measured. In some cases they have poorer social skills, they have more aggressive behaviour.
All this sounds pretty depressing: monkeys — and people — who suffer early in life seem to continue suffering for years afterwards. Danese acknowledges that his conclusions are kind of sucky, but offers a silver lining:
The message sounds very negative and I understand why, but from the research point of view I think it is positive because it points to the problem and once we understand the causes of all these behavioural problems, we can then start trying to find the potential cures.
He points to early psychiatric interventions to help children deal with bad experiences right when they happen, rather than years later when their behaviors may already be entrenched. Unfortunately, kids who experience parental neglect or absence may be exactly the kids who don't have access to good psychiatric care. In addition to developing treatments for children who have suffered trauma, we need a safety net to ensure that children get the care they need — whether that means therapy, or help for the parents to make sure neglect doesn't happen in the first place. Even better than treating kids who have suffered would be stopping that suffering before it starts.
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