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What a Monkey's Grandma Can Teach Us About Helping At-Risk Kids

Washington

A strong and caring older role model can really make a difference for disadvantaged youth—even when those youth aren't human.

It's often a bridge too far to look at animal studies for lessons in practical education research, but I was struck by a study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that was presented at this year's meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, on an "intervention" for teenage rhesus macaques who experienced disadvantaged childhoods.

Stephen J. Soumi, the senior investigator for NICHD's comparative behavior and genetics section, spends a lot of time studying the family structure and parenting skills of the rhesus macaque, a small primate who typically lives in social groups. Suomi described a series of experiments in which infant monkeys were either allowed to live with their birth mother and a social group, or taken at birth and raised in peer groups of six babies. After six months, monkeys from both groups were brought into the larger social group and studied.

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So-called "peer-raised" macaques seemed to have a lot of the same difficulties that human children with absent or neglectful parents have: They were more likely to be fearful (spending more time clinging to each other), impulsive, and aggressive. They also tended to have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate memory and learning. By a year old, 4,400 genes—accounting for more than 20 percent of the monkey's entire genome—were being expressed differently based on what they experienced in the first six months of life. In fact, the only parent-raised monkey who looked neurologically and genetically like the peer-raised monkeys turned out to have an abusive mother.

These findings have discouraging parallels for anyone who studies at-risk students; early, chronic stress, particularly that caused by parental abuse or neglect, can seriously damage children's cognitive and emotional development.

But the monkeys' tale doesn't end there. 

"Experimental efforts to 'reverse' the behavioral, biological, and epigenetic consequences of these adverse early experiences are currently underway, and initial results appear promising," Suomi and his colleagues reported.

The researchers took some of these yearling, disadvantaged macaques and housed them with "adopted grandparents": a female past her reproductive years who had been shown to be highly nurturing to both her own and other young, and an older male who was tolerant of youngsters but who, as Suomi put it, "takes no guff" and corrected aggressive behavior in the young ones.

Young traumatized monkeys living with adopted grandparents for a year had normal behavior and stress levels by age 2. Moreover, the number of genes expressing differently had shrunk to 2,500 for males and only 750 for females, showing potential for longterm recovery. 

Sure, these aren't children, but their improvement offers a metaphor for how powerful support from an older mentor or caregiver can be to counter early deprivations. 

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