New network faculty studies long-term biological consequences of childhood abuse

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Christine Heim, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, studies the neurobiological effects that childhood maltreatment has on the development of psychiatric disorders and physical health outcomes. Heim joined the University's Network on Child Protection and Well-Being last semester and conducts research focused on identifying mechanisms that mediate the effects of abuse on long-term health, which may lead to novel interventions.

Heim’s research has shed light on “biological scars” left on children who are exposed to adverse life events, such as childhood sexual abuse and neglect. These scars may lead to a wide range of psychiatric disorders later in life, such as depression and anxiety. The children have an increased risk of developing medical diseases like diabetes and hypertension as they grow up. Also, risks associated with maltreatment stretch beyond the initial individual and can be transmitted to future generations.

“If we understand how childhood adversity affects disease processes,” Heim said, “we can develop the novel interventions to prevent, reverse or counteract these mechanisms and ultimately reduce a large public health burden.”

Researchers, like Heim, have discovered that these consequences occur, but the mechanisms illuminating the reasons behind the impacts on health and psychiatric well-being are not well understood. When a child is growing and developing, interventions can have the greatest impact, possibly averting the trajectory toward disorders and disease.

“By studying adults, we have an elaborate understanding of the long-term consequences of childhood trauma all the way down to the molecular level,” Heim said. “We have limited understanding of the immediate processes that happen in children that lead to the biological scars.”

Once researchers have mapped out these early events and revealed the precise mechanisms at work, they can identify and target the timing for specific interventions. They will also be able to predict who may be at risk for disorders and who may respond to specific treatments. Heim said, “Ideally, we would start interventions as early as possible to try to prevent a trajectory that leads to disease manifestation, but first we need to understand the mechanisms before we can take advantage of the ‘developmental plasticity.’”

According to Heim, understanding the clinical consequences of childhood trauma requires a multi-level approach involving many disciplines, including psychology, developmental science, biology, family studies, endocrine and immune science and others.

“We are talking about the impact of experience on brain development and its impact on behavior over the course of development,” said Heim. She added that changes at the molecular level underlie these effects. There are social and genetic factors that may also influence the events.

Heim is a part-time faculty member at Penn State. Her primary appointment is at Charité University Medical School at the Humboldt and Free University of Berlin where she is a professor and head of the Department of Medical Psychology. Joining the network places her among an interdisciplinary team of expert investigators, an ideal environment for conducting her research.

Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies and the network’s director of research and education, said Heim is an internationally respected researcher and a key addition to the network faculty.

“Christine fits naturally within our mission, and we are very excited that she is a part of the network,” Noll said. “She is a leading researcher in the field, and we will work together to get a better understanding of the mechanisms associated with the long-term impact of child abuse and neglect.”

Since its launch in 2012, the network has been recruiting faculty members to build an interdisciplinary consortium of at least 12 researchers who focus on prevention, intervention, and treatment of childhood abuse and neglect. Heim is the seventh faculty member to join the network.

Heim sees her role with the network as an opportunity to build strong research collaborations among faculty at Penn State as well as around the world. She will mentor junior faculty and teach graduate classes.

“My ultimate goal is to improve the lives of affected children,” she said. “I strongly believe that results from the network’s research will make a difference in the way we treat children.”

Heim is co-funded by the network and the Department of Biobehavioral Health. She joins fellow network faculty members: Noll; Idan Shalev, assistant professor of biobehavioral health; Chad Shenk, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Brian Allen, assistant professor of pediatrics; Kent Hymel, child abuse pediatrician in the Department of Pediatrics; and Lori Frasier, professor of pediatrics and division chief of Child Abuse Pediatrics.

On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the network will host its fourth annual conference, titled "New Frontiers in the Biology of Stress, Maltreatment and Trauma: Opportunities for Translation and Resilience.” Heim will be a lead speaker, along with a roster of internationally renowned researchers who study the biology of stress and who are concerned with the translation of research findings into the avenues that will impact models of childhood maltreatment prevention and treatment.

Christine Heim, professor of biobehavioral health Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 27, 2015