Does childhood trauma lead to the development of allergies and asthma?
A Brock University research team is conducting a first-of-its-kind study to see if and how abuse, severe household dysfunction and other childhood traumas set the stage for a lifetime of suffering with allergies.
“Allergy prevalence is rising rapidly and understanding why requires new transdisciplinary thinking, outside the box,” says Associate Professor of Health Sciences Adam MacNeil. “Many of the contributing factors remain elusive.”
Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Karen Patte says the team is “taking a unique approach by linking sociology and psychology with immunology and physiology — fields that seldom collaborate — to help determine the mechanisms linking childhood adversity and allergies.”
MacNeil and Patte are co-leading the team, which was awarded $250,000 from the Canadian government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) for their project “Allergenicity from Childhood Adversity.”
Children’s brains and immune systems are what scientists call ‘plastic,’ meaning that nerve and immune cells are profoundly shaped by life experiences, especially in childhood. The brain, for example, develops new neural pathways or weakens and even destroys current ones — commonly referred to as ‘rewiring the brain’ — in response to events happening in one’s surrounding environment. The same is true of the immune system.
Previous Brock research has explored how adverse childhood experiences change the body’s stress and inflammatory responses so as to bring about cardiovascular disease later in life, while other research has explored the impact of adverse childhood experiences on brain re-wiring.
But little is known about how adverse childhood experiences contribute to immune system dysfunctions. Early indications are that childhood traumas can create a hypersensitive immune environment, called ‘allergenicity,’ which supports the development of asthma, food allergies, hives, eczema, hay fever and other allergies affecting more than 40 per cent of school-aged children in Canada.
“When chronic allergic inflammation ensues, the immunological stage set in childhood primes them for longer-term pathological tissue remodelling, disease and notable loss in quality of life,” says MacNeil.
The dynamic seven-member team aims to identify the specific associations between adverse childhood experiences and allergies, and examine how psychosocial, lifestyle and environmental factors boost or dampen allergy development, including how the gut and brain interact through the immune system.
The researchers will measure and analyze physical samples such as white blood cells and gut microbes gathered from participants. The team will compare these physical results to participants’ incidence of adverse childhood experiences and measurements of psychosocial and behavioural factors such as depression, substance use, physical activity and sleep.
“Expanding and refining our understanding of the immunological impact of adverse childhood experiences will reveal insights into the concealed harms of severe childhood adversity, with implications far beyond allergy,” says MacNeil, who directs the Inflammation and Immunity Lab.
Patte’s expertise lies in youth mental health. “By integrating social and psychological factors with biological systems, we are pioneering a new socio-immunological framework,” she says. “This research is only made possible by our transdisciplinary and collegial environment.”
The research team also includes critical expertise from: Health Sciences Professors Terrance Wade, Jens Coorssen and Deborah O’Leary, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Valerie Michaelson and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Val Fajardo, who is also Canada Research Chair in Tissue Remodelling and Plasticity.
Brock’s Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon says the team’s approach represents the breaking of new ground.
“Linking sociology and psychology with immunology and physiology is a creative insight, and requires a unique team with a transdisciplinary approach,” he says, noting how the group is also being supported by experts in sociology, diversity, proteomics and physiology.
“This research will deepen our understanding of allergies and may provide foundational knowledge to inform interventions mitigating the substantial lifelong burdens of allergies,” he says.
The government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, supports international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking, high-risk, high-reward research.
The team will be recruiting participants, including young adults, in the Niagara region this fall.