UConn Health researchers receive grant to study pandemic-related stress in families with infants

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A man and an infant. Researchers at UConn Health are studying pandemic-related experiences and stress among families who have given birth during the pandemic. Photo by nappy from Pexels

Two researchers from UConn Health have received a $3.1 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  

The grant will fund a study for pandemic-related experiences and stress among families who have given birth during the pandemic, Anna Zarra Aldrich ‘20 (CLAS), said in UConn Today.  

The recipients Margaret Briggs-Gowan and Damion Grasso, associate professors of psychiatry, developed a new tool for measuring pandemic-related stress.  

“The Epidemic-Pandemic Impacts Inventory (EPII) assesses pandemic-related experiences across several domains with questions about job loss, childcare, domestic violence and abuse, social distancing and physical and mental health,” Aldrich said. “The EPII has been included in the NIH Disaster Research Response Assessment Repository and is being used by more than 100 research teams around the world.”  

The tool emphasizes the assessment of lived experiences, rather than primarily focusing on  perceptions of stress. 

“Both are important,” Grasso said, “but I think it helps to identify particularly risky experiences or combinations of experiences of families that might help inform public health interventions to support families during similar crises.”  

Briggs-Gowan and Grasso will recruit a sample of 2,000 families who gave birth during the pandemic to study the impacts of stress on caregiver and infant experiences.  

Environment stressors and caregiver mental health have a large impact on infants’ well-being, development and cellular functions during the perinatal period, before and after birth.  

“Grasso and Briggs-Gowan will test the hypothesis that perinatal stress, worsened by the current pandemic, is linked to caregiver post-traumatic stress and to difficulties regulating negative emotions,” Aldrich said. “These factors shape infants’ environment, and influence their own stress responses and developing abilities to regulate themselves through biobehavioral processes like DNA methylation and accelerated cellular aging.”  

Using the information from the EPII responses, 400 mothers will be chosen for a sub-study that will have a high-stress and low-stress group. The researchers will conduct interviews with these mothers to better understand their child-bearing experiences during the pandemic.  

“To study the biological impacts of pandemic-related stress, the researchers will collect DNA samples from the infants,” Aldrich said. “They will compare epigenetic changes between high and low-stress groups that may explain individual differences in how infants respond to stress. Differential DNA methylation and telomere shortening associated with early life stress.”  

Co-Investigator Rocio Chang, in the Department of Psychiatry, is leading efforts to connect with agencies serving ethnic minority families, ensuring a diverse sample and representation of minorities like Latino families, who often experience healthcare disparities.  

“This study will have impacts beyond the current pandemic by providing a nuanced understanding of the ways COVID-19 has shaped people’s lives and the impact these events have on biological processes,” Aldrich said. “This understanding can help inform public health interventions to support caregivers and infants who have undergone significant stressors.” 

Those interested in participating in this study should visit the Parenting Infants in the Pandemic Study (PIP) webpage for more information. 

 

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