Toxic Stress and the Development of Young Children

Evidence is building that “toxic stress” in children—stemming from abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and/or the stresses of poverty—is a risk to healthy development and its underlying brain function and may increase the risk of a variety of chronic diseases later in life.

Dates of Project: July 2010 through June 2013

Description: Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University assessed the potential of numerous biological markers to measure both the physiological impacts of adversity and the effectiveness of interventions designed to mitigate toxic stress. From July 2010 through June 2013, they produced 10 journal articles documenting their work.

Key Findings

  • In three systematic reviews of existing studies, the researchers concluded:

    • “Studies show that cortisol activity can be altered by psychosocial interventions ... and suggest it may be possible to repair regulatory systems following childhood adversity.” Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress.
    • “Although childhood adversity was not consistently related” to markers of inflammation and other indicators of immune activation, “a trend towards positive findings was observed.”
    • “Socioeconomic disadvantage was consistently associated with greater central adiposity” [ratio of waist circumference to height]. However, the available studies did not provide a clear association between childhood stressors and other cardiometabolic risk factors.

Although the project team had hoped to identify specific biomarkers that could be used to measure toxic stress in children, existing evidence proved to be incomplete and inconsistent and they concluded more studies are needed before they could make specific recommendations for broad application beyond research settings.


“Before we rush forward and spend a lot of time and money conducting more tests on large numbers of children who are already burdened by significant adversity in their lives, we ought to be as precise as possible about what we’re measuring, what the results are going to tell us, and what we’re going to do with the findings.”—Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, director of the Center on the Developing Child

Slopen N, Non A, Williams D, Roberts A and Albert M. “Childhood Adversity, Adult Neighborhood Context, and Cumulative Biological Risk in Adulthood.” Psychosomatic Medicine, 76(7): 481-489, 2014.


Wanted: Biomarkers that measure impact of toxic stress on developing brain. #HarvardResearchersOnHunt