US and Brazilian researchers study toxic stress in children
January 18, 2017
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Children who live in slums in Brazil and East Lubbock, Texas (USA), share a number of unfortunate circumstances: many live in extreme poverty; frequently witness violence; and may be victims of verbal, physical, emotional or even sexual abuse.
According to researchers, continual or constant exposure to traumatic events, known as toxic stress, can lead children to develop negative behaviors such as aggression, anxiety and depression unless they have adequate support from an adult.
Scientists at the Department of Psychiatry of the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School (EPM-UNIFESP), in collaboration with colleagues at Texas Tech University (TTU), are conducting a study with support from FAPESP to evaluate the incidence of toxic stress and its effects on the neurological, cognitive, social and emotional development of children and adolescents in Brazil and the United States.
The research project is part of São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT). The SPRINT program has a new call for proposals open until January 30, 2017.
The research project conducted by the scientists from UNIFESP and TTU initially set out to identify chronic toxic factors common to both regions, such as poverty, abuse, family conflict and drug use, said Andrea Parolin Jackowski, a professor at UNIFESP and the principal investigator for the project on the Brazilian side.
“We’ve already detected that child abuse is highly prevalent in both regions,” Jackowski told Agência FAPESP.
In October, researchers from TTU spent a week in São Paulo with Brazilian collaborators, visiting “Crackland” in the city center and other places to find out firsthand how the children whom they are studying live and to assess how the lessons learned from these children’s experiences can be applied worldwide, given that the problems do not vary much from one place to another.
The preliminary findings of the study show that despite cultural differences, children react very similarly to toxic stress everywhere. Children living in extreme poverty in Lubbock or South Central Los Angeles, for example, basically experience the same cognitive and behavioral effects, according to the researchers.
“The way the body responds to toxic stress is similar across contexts,” said Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, a professor at TTU and the principal investigator for the project on the US side, in a news story published on TTU’s website.
According to Jackowski, the research project was feasible only thanks to SPRINT. When they saw an earlier call for proposals from SPRINT that included their university, the researchers from TTU realized that Jackowski’s project, which is also funded by FAPESP, had the same goals as theirs. They contacted Jackowski and decided to submit a joint proposal under the SPRINT call.
“SPRINT enabled the researchers from Texas Tech University to come to Brazil and find out about other projects we’ve developed,” Jackowski said. “We’ve detected opportunities for future collaborations and plan to apply for cross-border funding.”
Building more scientific partnerships is precisely the main goal of SPRINT, which was launched in 2014 to promote the advancement of scientific research through collaboration between researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions in São Paulo State and with partners abroad on both medium- and long-term joint projects.
The program offers seed funding for the initial stage of cross-border research collaborations, with the expectation that researchers in São Paulo State and their foreign colleagues will then submit joint applications for regular grants to FAPESP and to the research funding agencies accessible to FAPESP’s various international partners in order to continue the research begun under the auspices of SPRINT and to consolidate their collaboration.
To date, the program has supported 118 projects conducted by researchers affiliated with 11 public and private universities and six research institutions in São Paulo State, in collaboration with scientists based in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and Wales.
For example, Alexandre da Costa Pereira, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Heart Institute (INCOR), part of Hospital das Clínicas, the general and teaching hospital run by the university’s medical school (HC-FMUSP), had a research proposal accepted in the first SPRINT call and is conducting a study on the molecular genetics of hereditary heart disease with colleagues at Harvard Medical School in the United States.
The project enabled him to intensify the collaboration that he had already begun with colleagues at Harvard via an exchange of researchers. A PhD student and a postdoctoral fellow in Pereira’s group at INCOR both won scholarships from FAPESP for research internships abroad.
“SPRINT helps establish and maintain scientific collaboration networks by enabling researchers from groups involved in projects to meet and work together,” Pereira said.
“Partnerships such as these create far more robust opportunities than just co-authoring papers, with a significant likelihood of successful outcomes.”
Trevor Elliot, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in Northern Ireland, agrees. Elliot is conducting a research project in collaboration with Daniel Marcos Bonotto, a professor at São Paulo State University’s Institute of Geosciences & Exact Sciences (IGCE-UNESP). The project is funded by SPRINT and concerns using environmental tracers for water resource management.
On a visit to Brazil in early 2016 as part of the project, Elliot evaluated potential sites for a field survey along the Corumbataí River in the region of Rio Claro, São Paulo State. He also discussed and planned possibilities for future projects with Bonotto’s group and with other Brazilian researchers.
“SPRINT facilitates visits to partners, which is extremely valuable not just to foster an initial dialog but also to fortify international research collaboration over the long term,” he said.
For more information about the SPRINT program, visit www.fapesp.br/en/sprint.