Researchers all across the University of Illinois campus are working towards advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical maternal and child health issues. These researchers evaluate maternal and child health from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives. Each Researcher Spotlight features a maternal and child health researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Heidemarie Laurent, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and the director of the PRISM Lab. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Through her research and clinical work, she aims to understand the roots of stress dysregulation within families and to support growth in intra- and interpersonal regulation to reduce intergenerational suffering.
Q: What is your research in maternal and child health about?
My work aims to better understand how risk for stress-related disorders such as depression is passed down within families, and how we can better identify and intervene to interrupt such risk pathways. As part of this work, I have been investigating both early risk predictors and mental health outcomes associated with physiological, neural, and behavioral responsiveness to interpersonal stress in mothers and their children. My growing interest in mindfulness as a potential protective factor has led to research showing that maternal mindfulness predicts differences in brain and neuroendocrine responses to challenging interactions that may help to explain mental health benefits.
Q: How are you conducting your research?
I am currently engaged in two main studies centered on mother-infant health: One is an investigation of how early (perinatal) exposure to maternal stress and depression may calibrate the child’s stress responsiveness toward risk for psychological disorders. For this longitudinal study, mothers and their babies come to the lab multiple times over the first two years of the child’s life so we can assess how the baby is learning to respond to relational stress across different stress response systems (neuroendocrine, autonomic, and inflammatory) and how this maps onto self-regulation. The second study is a randomized controlled trial of a prenatal mindfulness intervention that will test how mindfulness training may shift new mothers’ brain and behavioral responses to their infant, and how these shifts may mitigate intergenerational transmission of mental health risk.
Q: How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
I have been amazed at how many resources I have been able to connect with both within and beyond the university to expand the scope of my research. On the one hand, collaborators I have met through the Institute for Genomic Biology and the Neuroscience Program are helping me to pursue a growing interest in the role the gut microbiome plays in stress-health connections. On the more applied side, being involved in the Identifying Depression through Early Awareness (IDEA) coalition has given me a chance to share my work with community stakeholders involved in maternal/child health and be a part of community-engaged research. I feel privileged to be a part of this community.
Q: How will your research improve society or reach people?
We know that stress is ubiquitous and that depression—particularly during the perinatal period—is a serious health problem with cascading costs when you consider the burden on mother, child, and society at large. I believe that by shining a light on the precursors and biological underpinning of maternal depression, as well as the paths by which maternal depression impacts child health, we can do a better job of identifying women in need of extra support and providing the type of support needed during this crucial time. More immediately, I have seen firsthand how mindfulness interventions can profoundly affect personal suffering, and I am glad to be a part of efforts to validate programs such as Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting so it can be available to more women and families.
Q: Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
As both a clinician and a person, I have long been acutely aware of the prevalence of mental distress and felt the need to do what I can to alleviate it. My path to psychology arose from efforts to harmonize interests in biology, philosophy, and personal narrative, alongside a hope to use this information to positively impact human lives. Having experienced the benefits of mindfulness practice both for myself and as a teacher, I am committed to illuminating how and why mindfulness may promote wellbeing through concrete changes in neurophysiological responding; not only does this further our basic understanding of what is occurring in mindfulness practice, but it may also help to convince those who approach contemplative healing practices with skepticism of their “objective” value, leading to greater acceptance and availability of mindfulness programs for expectant/new mothers.