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University of Dayton psychologist partners with Harvard-affiliated hospital and Dayton nonprofit to research generational trauma, mental health of children

By Allison Brace ’22

University of Dayton faculty and student researchers are working with one of the country’s top psychiatric hospitals to understand the biological link between childhood hardships and mental disorders.

Lucy Allbaugh, assistant professor of psychology, and a team of undergraduate and graduate students partnered with researchers from McLean Hospital, a Harvard affiliate, on the Dayton Kids Project, which aims to better understand childhood adversity.

The project will enroll up to 1,000 families in Dayton and surrounding areas as part of a two-and-a-half-year program to understand the role of stress on biological mechanisms, in particular epigenetics, that contribute to risk in developing children.

“Epigenetics is the study of reversible biological mechanisms that regulate the function of our genome, or the brain's instruction manual,” Allbaugh said. “Studies have shown that factors like toxic stress and poverty can change these epigenetic markers and lead to the development of mental and physical disorders over time.”

Allbaugh and her students are recruiting families through social media, community flyers and information distribution by their partners at Dayton Children's Hospital, including collaborator Dr. Jack Pascoe.

The study began through a partnership between McLean Hospital and The Connor Group Kids and Community Partners, the nonprofit arm of the Connor Group, a Dayton-based real estate investment firm. Allbaugh, who joined the University faculty in 2018, was connected to the project through colleagues from her postdoctoral studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Dr. Kerry J. Ressler, McLean Hospital’s chief scientific officer and a professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is heading the study.

“This is some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work being done in psychiatric research,” said Dr. Scott L. Rauch, McLean’s president and psychiatrist in chief. “Kerry’s team, including Drs. Torsten Klengel from McLean and Lucy Allbaugh from UD, is essentially studying how trauma is passed down from generation to generation and what can be done about it to benefit the mental health of our children.”

The overall goal is to identify actionable markers to help treat children before the onset of mental health problems. This will help to provide earlier and more effective interventions in mental health cases.

Additional families have been enrolled in similar programs in other cities. 

This study is mutually beneficial for Allbaugh and her colleagues at McLean Hospital, presenting an opportunity for Allbaugh to do further research in her focus area while expanding the study to new cities.

Allbaugh’s research is driven by the question of what puts people on a risky versus resilient trajectory in relation to generational trauma and mental health disorders.

“Experiencing stress and trauma puts people at risk for mental and physical health problems, but what we also know is that most people who experience these types of trauma-related stressors do not experience these types of effects,” Allbaugh said. "In fact, many people are resilient, meaning that they can bounce back and get to a place of wellness after the trauma. Understanding what helps those resilient individuals is critically important for shaping interventions for those who are at risk for PTSD, other mental health problems and trauma-related illnesses.

“I want to focus on identifying those individuals at the highest need for intervention or services and looking at biological markers is one way to do this.”

Once a family is identified as a candidate for the study, Allbaugh’s team of undergraduate and graduate students meet with the family via Zoom to discuss the study and gain informed consent for participation. After this, families use a secure platform to fill out a series of questionnaires.

“After a family is enrolled in the study we send in the mail both a gift card as a form of payment for them to compensate for their time and also a saliva collection kit,” Allbaugh said. “Each member of the family has their own tube where they provide a sample and then they seal it up and send it back to Boston, where Dr. Torsten Klengel, director of Translational Molecular Genomics Laboratory at McLean Hospital, is located. He and his team will then analyze the sample.”

Participating families are recontacted every six months to fill out a smaller questionnaire online and send another saliva sample, allowing researchers to look at markers in the epigenome over a two-and-a-half-year period.

The partnering organizations meet weekly via Zoom to coordinate efforts. The broader team also includes researchers and doctors from Wayne State University in Detroit.

“This makes for a nice opportunity for the undergraduate students in my lab because they get to not only work with me and the graduate students in my lab on this, but also get to be connected to some trauma and PTSD researchers in other parts of the country,” Allbaugh said.

Allbaugh appreciates the University of Dayton’s emphasis on undergraduate student research.

“It is nice to be someplace where students are excited about doing this kind of work and engaging in the greater Dayton community,” she said 

For more information about the study, visit the Dayton Kids Project website.

For more information about the Department of Psychology, visit the department's website.

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