US and Brazilian researchers study toxic stress in children


Children who live in slums in Brazil and East Lubbock, Texas (USA), share a number of unfortunate circumstances: many live in extreme poverty; frequently witness violence; and may be victims of verbal, physical, emotional or even sexual abuse.

According to researchers, continual or constant exposure to traumatic events, known as toxic stress, can lead children to develop negative behaviors such as aggression, anxiety and depression unless they have adequate support from an adult.

Scientists at the Department of Psychiatry of the Federal University of São Paulo's Medical School (EPM-UNIFESP), in collaboration with colleagues at Texas Tech University (TTU), are conducting a study to evaluate the incidence of toxic stress and its effects on the neurological, cognitive, social and emotional development of children and adolescents in Brazil and the United States.

The research project initially set out to identify chronic toxic factors common to both regions, such as poverty, abuse, family conflict and drug use, said Andrea Parolin Jackowski, a professor at UNIFESP and the principal investigator for the project on the Brazilian side.

"We've already detected that child abuse is highly prevalent in both regions," Jackowski told.

In October, researchers from TTU spent a week in São Paulo with Brazilian collaborators, visiting "Crackland" in the city center and other places to find out firsthand how the children whom they are studying live and to assess how the lessons learned from these children's experiences can be applied worldwide, given that the problems do not vary much from one place to another.

The preliminary findings of the study show that despite cultural differences, children react very similarly to toxic stress everywhere. Children living in extreme poverty in Lubbock or South Central Los Angeles, for example, basically experience the same cognitive and behavioral effects, according to the researchers.

"The way the body responds to toxic stress is similar across contexts," said Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, a professor at TTU and the principal investigator for the project on the US side.

According to Jackowski, the research project was feasible only thanks to FAPESP's São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT). When they saw an earlier call for proposals from SPRINT that included their university, the researchers from TTU realized that Jackowski's project, which is also funded by FAPESP, had the same goals as theirs. They contacted Jackowski and decided to submit a joint proposal under the SPRINT call.

"SPRINT enabled the researchers from Texas Tech University to come to Brazil and find out about other projects we've developed," Jackowski said. "We've detected opportunities for future collaborations and plan to apply for cross-border funding."

Building more scientific partnerships is precisely the main goal of SPRINT, which was launched in 2014 to promote the advancement of scientific research through collaboration between researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions in São Paulo State and with partners abroad on both medium- and long-term joint projects.

The SPRINT program, that has a new call for proposals open until January 30, 2017, offers seed funding for the initial stage of cross-border research collaborations, with the expectation that researchers in São Paulo State and their foreign colleagues will then submit joint applications for regular grants to FAPESP and to the research funding agencies accessible to FAPESP's various international partners in order to continue the research begun under the auspices of SPRINT and to consolidate their collaboration.


To date, the program has supported 118 projects conducted by researchers affiliated with 11 public and private universities and six research institutions in São Paulo State, in collaboration with scientists based in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and Wales.

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Samuel Antenor
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