Overview

Early stress in immature neonates, both animal and human, has the potential for long-term effects. Medical care of infants born prematurely at very low gestational age (

Pain in biologically immature neonates is developmentally “unexpected” inducing numerous physiologic, endocrine and behavioral changes that may contribute to altered brain development and stress regulation - affecting neurodevelopment, ability to self-regulate behaviorally and physiologically, as well as altering multiple aspects of attention, learning and memory. These difficulties impact the infant's adjustment to the environment, parent-infant interaction, behavior and later academic achievement; however the etiology is largely unknown.

Using a transdisciplinary, biobehavioural approach we have gained new knowledge about pain reactivity, relationships between response systems in premature compared to healthy term born infants, and increased understanding of mechanisms contributing to altered neurodevelopment and internalizing behaviors in these fragile children.

Research

Current Projects
The focus of my transdisciplinary research program is biobehavioural reactivity and infant neurodevelopment, broadly encompassing multiple aspects of infant arousal, self-regulation, attention, cognition and brain development in preterm and term born infants. My research program is currently funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH, USA) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Clinical practice of pain management in neonatal intensive care Unit (NICU) changed over the years from no concern with pain to widespread use of analgesia and sedation, however there are major gaps in knowledge of pain assessment in immature infants, and in long term effects of pain-related stress and pain medications. With the goal to improve pain assessment, we recently confirmed that, along with recognized facial and heart rate changes, there are motor stress behaviors unique to premature infants (e.g. backward splaying of fingers). Conversely, other behaviors such as twitches and startles reflect sleep/waking state, and do not appear to be stress or pain cues. We have shown that greater exposure to neonatal pain-related stress in the NICU (adjusted for multiple medical and neonatal confounding factors) is associated with altered brain microstructure, cortico-spinal tract development, cortical thinning and resting oscillatory activity, stress hormone (cortisol) expression, cognitive development and internalizing behaviors, in infancy and at school-age. Importantly, greater morphine exposure does not appear to prevent adverse long term sequelae, and may impair cerebellar growth.

In two longitudinal cohorts followed since birth, we build on our extensive neonatal medical and nursing data to examine behavior, neurodevelopment, stress regulation, parent-infant interaction at multiple ages from infancy to school-age. Further, in collaboration with the Child and Family Brain Imaging Facility and Brain mapping Unit, our group undertakes brain imaging (MRI, DTI), and in collaboration with Simon Fraser University - magnetoencephalography (MEG) at school-age. Furthermore, we are studying to what extent caregiver interaction style and parenting stress may modify infant behavior, as well as ameliorate or exacerbate effects of early stress/pain experience in preterm infants.

In collaboration with geneticists in CFRI, we are beginning to address gene X environment (early stress) interactions, as well as epigenetics.

Grants

CIHR Operating Grant – Project: "Analgesia and sedation in the preterm neonate: brain development and outcome" (2014-2020)

Honours & Awards

Senior Scholar, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, 2001 - 2006

Senior Scholar, Human Early Learning Partnership, 2007 - 2009

Senior Scientist, Child & Family Research Institute, 2002 - present

Research Group Members

Mary Beckingham, Research Assistant
Connie Che
Vicki Goh
Shanlea Gordon
Jana Krljic
Terri Levine
Nikoo Niknafs
Amina Benlamri
Cecil Ming Yeung Chau
Mark Bichin
Janet Rigney
Ramon Ruffy
Victoria Tapics
Chandra Pham
Jasmine Wong