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Araceli Sanz Martin, Ph.D.

Stress and Neurodevelopment Laboratory

Laboratory Director: Dra. Araceli Sanz Martin
e-mail: aracelisanz@yahoo.com

Stress is a natural, unspecific response of organisms to events which appear to be challenging or threatening and, therefore, cause disequilibrium in the capacity for adaptation. When excessive or prolonged, responses of this kind trigger significant changes in the Central Nervous System (CNS) that predispose affected individuals to develop diverse psychopathological disorders and cognitive and emotional alterations. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress due to the fact that their CNS is in a continuous phase of development and so has only limited strategies with which to confront such situations.

The Stress and Neurodevelopment Laboratory at the Institute for Neuroscience conducts research that seeks to identify the early effects of stress on the development of the CNS, cognition, the emotions and behavior. These projects can be grouped into four principle axes:

The first axis strives to determine the cognitive, emotional and behavioral affectations manifested by children and adolescents who have experienced child abuse or bullying at school, two of the most common situations that provoke chronic stress in minors. In these populations we have studied such processes as memory, attention, executive processing, inhibition capacity and emotional processing, while also analyzing the interaction between emotional recognition and tasks involving memory and motor inhibition. Some of these studies have included simultaneous recording of cerebral electrical activity related to experimental events and measuring cortisol levels at baseline or after generating psychosocial stress.

The second line of research involves studying the development of specific cognitive characteristics of children and adolescents who are raised in orphanages, since it is well-known that those young people come from adverse familial, social and economic situations, and that the characteristics of the material and affective care and attention they receive in those institutions differ greatly from those offered to children who grow up in the bosom of a functional family. As in the first axis mentioned above, these minors have been evaluated using both neuropsychological tests and electroencephalograms while at rest and during task performance.

Another key interest of this Laboratory consists in assessing the effectiveness of certain treatments for the cognitive alterations experienced by both the minors who are victims of some form of violence, and those who perpetrate that violence. Up to now, our studies have centered on the effectiveness of the training program called ‘mindfulness’ in terms of its ability to improve the performance of executive functioning in both adolescents in secondary school who present violent behaviors and low academic achievement, and young people who have committed serious crimes and are housed in juvenile detention centers. In addition, we have characterized the electroencephalographic changes that these young people suffer before and after receiving treatment.

Finally, given the implicit difficulty of establishing a causal relation between early stress and cognitive alterations in humans, our Laboratory has implemented animal models using rats that allow us to study the impact of stress on behavior, neurohormonal responses and neuroanatomical changes.