If India strives to "get it right" for its children in their first decade -- ensure nutrition, health, sleep, education -- when they are most vulnerable to trauma, it could unlock the nation's demographic dividend and power of youth, says an Indian neurobiologist.
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) scientist Vidita Vaidya, her colleagues and collaborators (S. Galande, Centre For Excellence in Epigenetics, IISER-Pune) are trying to unravel the complexities of stress in kids and shed insights on why stress early on in life is often so much worse than adult stress.
"Trauma under the age of 10 can leave life-long consequences. There seems to be a window, which is called the acritical period window' in which the brain is most vulnerable. After that it becomes less so," Vaidya told IANS here on the sidelines of the 13th ASciComm Workshop organised by Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance .
"In a rat brain, changes in the first two weeks of life leave lasting imprints though its two-year life span.
"The equivalent of that in humans would be pre-teen (the first decade of life), which means the brain before puberty is particularly vulnerable," said Vaidya, professor, department of biological sciences at TIFR, Mumbai.
This is the time when children are in school, they are facing quite a bit of peer pressure, performance anxiety is coming in way earlier which was not the case before and they are dealing with so many other issues, she reasons.
What is also interesting to note for both parents as well as policy makers, is the fact that even severe stress in adults sometimes doesn't produce the kind of long-lasting effects that relatively milder stresses do in early life: expose kids to increased risk of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety and drug-addiction.
"People don't realise, perhaps, the consequences of stress in that window are so persistent and not just transienta they last for a long time. So our work has been to understand why and how something which is so short-lived has long term effects,a the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardee explained.
The chink in the chain lies way down at the molecular level.
They are engendered in the way epigenetic enzymes (chemicals that act as catalysts in reactions that go on inside our body) manage the translation of instructions stored in genes to products such as proteins.
Epigenetics revolves around how environmental factors can affect gene expression.
"There are certain epigenetic enzymes in the brain that regulate gene expression which would allow you to make proteins.A How much of the proteins you make depends on how turned off or turned on the gene is and this is regulated by enzymes," Vaidya said.
What happens is the expression of several of these epigenetic enzymes is permanently altered based on the early life history of stress.
"... Aand it is altered till the animal (rat) is two years of age which is very old for a rat," Vaidya elaborated.
"It's like a network hub, you change the controlling centre and the downstream goes haywire. Hitting control hubs has a huge cascading effect. You are not hitting that in a similar way in adult stress," she said. The findings are published in 2016 in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.
While the quest goes on for the team to find ways to "rescue the changes" and identify potential novel drug targets to treat childhood depression, Vaidya laid emphasis on getting the first decade right.
"The developing brain is not simply a miniature version of the adult brain. It's a completely different stage in which neuro-circuits are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment. In the first decade of life, fundamental rights of children have to be actively protected by governments.
"... because, if you can't get that window right then you can't fix it easily later in life. Given its demographic dividend, if India got the first decade right, then it could unleash its power," Vaidya signed-off.