McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, will cover research into how negative daily life experiences, above and beyond dramatic stressful events, contribute to an overall wear and tear on the body. He calls this wear and tear allostatic load, from the term allostasis, a physiological adaptation that attempts to maintain a dynamic balance in a system under pressure from a variety of sources. In the case of stress, allostatic load reflects the sum of pressures that strain the brain and body, not only the impact of environmental stressors but also genes, lifestyle habits such as sleep, diet, and exercise, and bad early life experiences. The concept captures the systematic effects of stress on the brain, which in the short-run can be protective - i.e., the fight or flight response - but if endured over extended periods of time can lead to lifelong behavior and health problems. The effects are especially profound in early childhood development, he argues, drawing on more than a decade of his work with an interdisciplinary group of scientists researching the long-term health effects of social inequality. The effects are comparable to those seen in other species among those on the lower rungs of a group's "dominance hierarchy."
"Improving the developmental trajectory of a child by helping the parents and improving the home environment is probably the single most important thing we can do for the health of that child," says McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller. "Adverse childhood experience is a of large contributors to such chronic health problems as diabetes and obesity, psychiatric disorders, drug abuse almost every major public health challenge we face. These cause much human suffering and also are a huge financial burden on our society."
McEwen is co-chairing a symposium at the AAAS meeting Friday morning titled "Stress and the Central Role of the Brain in Health Inequalities," which will feature research from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pittsburg as well.