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The Institute for Early Life Adversity Research explores the medical and psychiatric/psychological consequences of childhood trauma. It is well established that childhood maltreatment in the form of sexual, physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect and other untoward experiences (exposure to poverty, domestic violence, terrorism, natural disaster, etc.) leads to marked increase in vulnerability to serious medical (diabetes, asthma, obesity, heart disease) and psychiatric disorders (depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder).

Experts from across disciplines collaborate to understand the lifelong impact of child abuse and neglect and inconsistent parental bonding as well as prenatal exposure to such things as cigarette smoke, drugs, abuse and domestic violence. The development of novel treatments to address the consequences of early life adversity is a major focus area.

Housed within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences as part of the school’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, the institute studies all aspects of childhood maltreatment. This includes the effects of early life abuse and neglect on the brain and the body. The team is interested in implementing early life adversity prevention programs and caring for individuals of all ages who have been and continue to be impacted by it. Charles B. Nemeroff, M.D., Ph.D., Matthew P. Nemeroff professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, leads the institute. Josh Cisler, Ph.D., associate professor in the department and an authority on brain imaging consequences of trauma serves as co-director.

About the Institute

Focus Areas

The institute intends to implement educational programs to help prevent child neglect and trauma (including prenatal exposure), teach the public about the impact of early life adversity and identify people who are at risk.

Researchers use multiple methodologies, including brain imaging, genomics and epigenetics, and inflammation assays, to understand how early life trauma alters important aspects of health and well-being. Examples of these important targets include emotion and emotion regulation, safety learning and forming healthy relationships and attachments.

Institute team members conduct research to identify novel therapeutic targets — mainly combinations of medications and psychotherapy — and develop effective treatments that go beyond pharmacological interventions. Researchers conduct clinical trials to design models of resilience training that can be incorporated into therapeutic interventions.

Building on the strengths of UT Austin, the institute aims to benefit the community by alleviating human suffering and reducing health care costs.

Institute researchers tackle early life adversity from multiple angles, including seeking to uncover high-risk genes that — when coupled with specific environmental factors — are the greatest predictors of disease risk in adulthood. Studies also look at the impact of early life adversity on the human stress response system and the effects of decreased oxytocin levels such as difficulty in forming healthy attachment bonds. Importantly, institute researchers collaborate and combine their individual expertise into a greater collective understanding to better study and understand the toxic effects of early life adversity.

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