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Developing a neurobehavioral animal model of poverty: Drawing cross-species connections between environments of scarcity-adversity, parenting quality, and infant outcome

Abstract

Children reared in impoverished environments are at risk for enduring psychological and physical health problems. Mechanisms by which poverty affects development, however, remain unclear. To explore one potential mechanism of poverty's impact on social–emotional and cognitive development, an experimental examination of a rodent model of scarcity-adversity was conducted and compared to results from a longitudinal study of human infants and families followed from birth (N = 1,292) who faced high levels of poverty-related scarcity-adversity. Cross-species results supported the hypothesis that altered caregiving is one pathway by which poverty adversely impacts development. Rodent mothers assigned to the scarcity-adversity condition exhibited decreased sensitive parenting and increased negative parenting relative to mothers assigned to the control condition. Furthermore, scarcity-adversity reared pups exhibited decreased developmental competence as indicated by disrupted nipple attachment, distress vocalization when in physical contact with an anesthetized mother, and reduced preference for maternal odor with corresponding changes in brain activation. Human results indicated that scarcity-adversity was inversely correlated with sensitive parenting and positively correlated with negative parenting, and that parenting fully mediated the association of poverty-related risk with infant indicators of developmental competence. Findings are discussed from the perspective of the usefulness of bidirectional–translational research to inform interventions for at-risk families.

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Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Rosemarie E. Perry, Department of Applied Psychology, 627 Broadway, Room 810, New York, NY 10012; E-mail: rosemarie.perry@nyu.edu.
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The rodent research presented here was supported by NIH Grants R01 MH091451 and R37 HD083217 (to R.M.S.) and T32 MH096331 (to R.E.P.). The Family Life Project Phase I Key Investigators include Lynne Vernon-Feagans, University of North Carolina; Martha Cox, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Clancy Blair, New York University; Margaret Burchinal, University of North Carolina; Patricia Garrett-Peters, University of North Carolina; Mark Greenberg, Pennsylvania State University; Roger Mills-Koonce, University of North Carolina; and Michael Willoughby, RTI International. We thank the many families and research assistants for making this study possible. Human research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants P01 HD039667-01A1. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
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