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Metcalfe gift supports study of adversity’s effects on children’s brains

Work will aid effort to understand role of nature versus nurture

by Jim DrydenMay 24, 2019

Joe Angeles/Washington University

Compelled by the potential to improve the lives of vulnerable children, emeritus trustee Walter Metcalfe Jr. and his wife, Cynthia, have made a commitment of nearly $4 million through outright and estate gifts to support the work of Joan L. Luby, MD, a highly regarded child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Luby’s groundbreaking work includes research into how adversity and neglect, as well as nurturing and support, in early childhood affect the developing brain.

She and her colleagues have shown that forms of adversity, including poverty and neglect in the first years of life, are linked to changes in brain anatomy that increase risks of learning difficulties, clinical depression and behavioral problems that affect a child’s well-being.

On the flip side, their research also demonstrates that extensive nurturing from parents and early interventions supporting such caregiving can limit, or even eliminate, the impact of adversity on the developing brain. With support from the Metcalfes, Luby is expanding a project to assess the effects of environmental stress on brain development and overall health in 370 St. Louis-area children by recruiting their mothers while they are still pregnant, and measuring stress and adversity experienced during pregnancy and after the children are born.

“Washington University is grateful for the support of Walter and Cynthia Metcalfe,” said Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Their leadership has been crucial to the success of the university’s mission for many years, and this gift supports research that could have a profound effect on both Washington University and all of society.”

The Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of the School of Medicine’s Early Emotional Development Program, Luby will follow the children’s emotional and behavioral development from birth to age 3. Co-investigators in her multidisciplinary study will use MRI to track brain development and will examine the impact of environmental stress on the gut microbiome and the immune system of the children.

“Dr. Luby is doing extremely important work to identify problems in young children, as well as seek solutions,” said Chancellor-elect Andrew D. Martin. “Through the generosity of Walter and Cynthia Metcalfe, we will continue to strengthen the university and uphold our missional responsibility to improve lives here in St. Louis and around the world.”

Through the Metcalfe endowment, the research team will be able to collect saliva samples from infants at birth and 12, 24 and 36 months of age to analyze genetic information. They are particularly interested in how the environment in which children live affects their gene expression. They are looking for any changes that might appear throughout the genome and are storing the DNA from the children for further analysis should patterns emerge. The eventual plan is to learn how gene-environment interactions influence brain development and emotional and behavioral health through a process known as epigenetics.

“Dr. Luby’s work on childhood depression has been ground-breaking, including an entirely new strategy for effective therapeutic behavioral intervention,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Her continuing efforts to understand the negative effects of poverty and neglect on the young brain and developing therapies to combat those effects, is critically important and inspirational. We are so fortunate to have the vision of the Metcalfes to invest in and support research like Joan’s that is innovating in this most challenging area of medicine.”

Luby’s research team has demonstrated that poverty has many negative effects on the development of children’s brains. In previous work, the researchers found that a type of interactive therapy that helps parents be more nurturing, and teaches them to enhance their child’s emotional development, can reduce rates of childhood depression and other mental health problems. Although these problems present particular problems for poor children, they also affect children across the income spectrum.

“Joan Luby’s group is doing extremely important, cutting-edge work,” said Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry. “This gift from the Metcalfes will allow her team to expand its work to make a difference in the lives of young children that could continue to pay off for decades to come.”

The new gift is one more way Walter and Cynthia Metcalfe have lent their support to Washington University over the years.

“We see this as an investment in Washington University, in St. Louis and, most importantly, in children and their mental health,” said Cynthia Metcalfe.

The new gift extends the Metcalfes’ longstanding support of the university, as well as their civic engagement in the St. Louis region. Walter Metcalfe Jr., like his parents before him, attended Washington University; he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1960. Several family members also are alumni, including Cynthia Metcalfe’s father.

“The power of the research is that it could really have an impact on public policy and funding for programs that make a difference early on,” Walter Metcalfe Jr. said. “I don’t know of anything that’s more important than helping children lead productive, healthy lives.”

A member of the School of Medicine’s National Council since 2007, Walter Metcalfe Jr. is chair emeritus of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, an international law firm that doubled in size under his leadership. He has served on Washington University’s Board of Trustees and the Washington University Law National Council. The Metcalfes also are sustaining charter members of the Danforth Circle Chancellor’s Level of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society.

Luby said she is elated to receive this endowment and for the Metcalfes’ generosity.

“It will give my research team the freedom to explore and innovate in areas with a very high potential public health payoff that would take many years to launch through the typical federal grant system,” Luby said. “This gift provides the freedom and early opportunity to build on the existing NIH-funded study immediately as it actively assesses the effects of environmental stressors on brain development and overall health in the first three years of life to more rapidly influence public health.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.