The GARD Lab investigates how children’s environments shape health and wellbeing through social and neurobiological mechanisms.
Environmental Effects on Neurobehavioral Development
The environments that we grow up in shape the development of our brains, bodies, and behaviors.
How much family stress and financial strain do we experience? How healthy is the air we breathe and the water we drink? Can our children safely play in their neighborhoods? How do neighborhood and community social ties elevate strong families and promote child health?
These experiences shape the development of stress responses, emotion, and cognition – processes that support mental and physical health, social relationships, and financial stability across the lifespan.
A longstanding limitation of neurobiological research is the over-reliance on samples that are not representative of the broader population. Historically marginalized populations are often excluded from research design, implementation, and participation. Scientifically, this practice contributes to low generalizability, where our research findings may not accurately represent child development in diverse families. Ethically, if we don’t make concerted changes to sampling and inclusion, we risk perpetuating health disparities.
We are currently working on documenting disparities in research participation within neurobiological research. Our next set of projects will begin with community engagement at the planning stage, through focus groups and community outreach.
Neural and Genetic Markers of Risk and Resilience
Our behaviors – empathy, impulse control, depression, aggression – result from both environmental exposures and genetic predispositions. Therefore, in addition to studying how environments shape brain development, we also study how genes modify environmental exposures and influence brain development directly
Two individuals may respond differently to the same environmental exposure! If we can identify markers of risk and resilience, we may be able to improve existing prevention programs and tailor interventions to individual needs
How do we actually do the research?
Our research involves using existing data and collecting new data with children, adolescents, and families. Data collection often includes qualitative interviews, behavioral and cognitive assessments, observations of parent-child interactions, and an evaluation of environmental exposures. In addition, we can use biological samples to study how the body responds to environmental risk and protective factors – spit and blood to measure things like stress hormones, and MRI scans to measure brain development. In all of our studies, participating in any part is optional – you can ask us lots of questions and you can change your mind at any time.