I am a biological anthropologist studying developmental plasticity, aging health, and social determinants of health and fitness. Much of my research on developmental plasticity focuses on early life adversity. In 2017-2018, 33.3% of children in the United States experienced at least one form of early life adversity, and adversity was disproportionately experienced by black children and those in low-income households (National Survey of Children’s Health, 2020). Additionally, the growing reality of climate change is one of the greatest threats to public health, with disproportionate impacts on marginalized groups. The prevalence of adversity demonstrates the urgent need for comprehensive models of the long-term effects to guide social and medical interventions for vulnerable populations. I currently study wild olive baboons in Kenya, which allows for the collection of detailed behavioral data under natural conditions, and I study free ranging rhesus macaques in Puerto Rico, which allows for the collection of behavioral data and biological samples in a more controlled natural setting.
- What are the long-term effects of early life adversity?
Early life experiences can have profound and persistent effects on human health, with major ramifications for Darwinian fitness. Exposure to early life adversity – such as famine, low socioeconomic status, or parental abuse – increases susceptibility to a variety of diseases in adulthood. It’s crucial to take life course and intergenerational perspectives as well as comprehensive approaches that consider multiple aspects of phenotype (behavior, physiology, somatic growth, molecular) and environment (social and ecological).
How does early life adversity shape adult sociality?
Sociality has important implications for health and fitness in humans and other gregarious animals. Early life adversity might shape adult sociality by reducing ability to invest in social relationships or through effects on attractiveness as a social partner. We examined how females’ early life adversity predicts sociality and temperament in wild olive baboons, and evaluated whether temperament mediates the relationship between early life adversity and sociality. We found that females with early life adversity received fewer social interactions from others and developed temperaments that were less attractive to other baboons. Interaction style may partially mediate the association between early life adversity and sociality, adding to our growing understanding of the processing connecting early experiences to adult sociality and health. (Patterson et al 2022, Proc B)
How do the effects of early life adversity persist intergenerationally?
Effects of early life experiences don’t just last into adulthood, but can persist across generations. If early life adversity exerts developmental constraints that affect a mother’s ability to provide for her offspring, this could explain the transgenerational effects of early life adversity. In our study of wild olive baboons, we examined how a mother’s own early life adversity predicts her maternal effort (i.e., nursing and carrying time), maternal fecal glucocorticoid levels, and offspring outcomes. We found that female baboons who experienced more early life adversity had higher glucocorticoid levels during pregnancy and lactation, exerted more maternal effort, and produced offspring with higher mortality risk than females with less early life adversity. Our results suggest that female baboons with more early life adversity experience developmental constraints and struggle to invest in offspring, which likely contributes to persisting effects of early life adversity across generations. (Patterson et al 2021, BEAS)
What are the causes and consequences of early developmental trajectories?
Developing young are hypothesized to use environmental cues and maternal signals to prioritize certain developmental systems over others, orchestrating developmental tradeoffs between competing systems. We investigate the influence of maternal effort and maternal glucocorticoids (GCs) on infant play, independence, and growth in wild olive baboons. Higher nursing and carrying levels were associated with lower rates of play, less behavioral independence, and slower growth. Offspring exposed to elevated maternal GCs played less and were less independent, but grew faster. There was a negative relationship between the rate of social contact play and growth rate, indicating a developmental tradeoff. This tradeoff was most pronounced among offspring exposed to lower GCs and that were nursed less, suggesting these infants are operating under moderate constraints. By creating comprehensive models, we can better understand the complexities of developmental trajectories. (Patterson et al, in prep)
In ongoing projects and future research, I aim to link early developmental trajectories to later life outcomes. For example, do infants who invest less time in social play struggle to make social connections as adults? Are infants able to increase low-cost social behaviors (such as vocal grunting) during development to mitigate these long-term consequences? How do social, cultural, and geographic contexts moderate the effects of adversity in humans?
2. How does early life adversity “get under the skin” and shape aging health?
Some people fall victim to age-related declines in health at a younger chronological age than others. How various biological aging processes are influenced by early life experiences are only beginning to be understood. For my NSF postdoctoral fellowship research, I am investigating how early life adversity predicts lifespan and the pace of aging in free ranging rhesus macaques at Cayo Santiago. This project is in collaboration with Drs. Lauren Brent, James Higham, and Noah Snyder-Mackler, who are leading an ongoing study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, to produce longitudinal aging profiles. The project is using cutting-edge molecular, physiological, and physical techniques to study the pace of aging across the lifespan. I am leveraging long-term demographic data, detailed behavioral data, and data on immunological, genomic, and physical biomarkers of aging. Uncovering the components of aging impacted by early life adversity and the mechanisms is a crucial precursor to identifying behavioral or systems-level interventions that can remediate the early onset of age-related disease.
3. The evolution of developmental plasticity in humans and other species
The evolution of early life effects has received a lot of theoretical attention, but few empirical studies have tested the primary hypotheses. In fact, recent work suggests we might not even be using the appropriate study designs to empirically test the hypotheses!
I am co-organizing a workshop with a small group of international experts to discuss theoretical frameworks, competing viewpoints, and empirical approaches for testing ideas about the causes and consequences of developmental plasticity. I am also leading a research study that uses an online survey to gain a better understanding of how researchers think about the adaptive value of developmental plasticity, how to best move the field forward, and the applied relevance of this work for understanding human evolution and for policy.
I also participate in invited symposiums and seminars that value clinical perspectives alongside cross-species and cross-discipline perspectives. For example, I was an invited speaker and participant at the “Early biopsychosocial development and life-course health and wellbeing: exploring cross-species research” joint seminar series with child development scientists and zoologists at Newcastle University, Lancaster University, and Zoological Society of London (October 2021). I will be an invited speaker, workshop participant, and author in a special issue for the “Biology at Birth” symposium with scientists who work in the clinical world and comparative biologists (annual Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting, January 2023).
My research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF-SMA-2105307, NSF-BCS-1732172, NSF-GRFP-1841051), the Leakey Foundation, and Arizona State University.
GET IN TOUCH