Poverty’s most insidious damage occurs in a child’s brain, according to Washington University psychiatrist Joan Luby, MD, a leading expert on emotional development and mood disorders in young children. Dr. Luby and collaborators have tied early-life adversity to alterations in brain anatomy and an increased risk of depression and other conditions that significantly affect wellbeing. They also have shown that early therapeutic intervention involving parents can ameliorate the impact of these conditions.
Dr. Luby’s pioneering body of research attracted the attention of Emeritus Trustee Walter Metcalfe Jr., AB ’60, and his wife, Cynthia. Compelled by its potential to improve the lives of vulnerable children, the Metcalfes have made a generous commitment of nearly $4 million through outright and estate gifts to support Dr. Luby’s work, including an innovative study she is leading that will systematically examine the impact of environmental stress on biological factors that affect child health and development.
“The timing was perfect. This has accelerated the possibility of discovery. It is something every researcher dreams of.”
— Joan Luby, MD
The study, funded by an $11.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), will follow 370 children in the St. Louis area from before birth to age 3. Dr. Luby, the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, is assessing emotional and behavioral development. Her co-investigators are evaluating brain development using magnetic resonance imaging; the gut microbiome, which influences nutrition; and the immune system, which affects susceptibility to infection.
The multidisciplinary study draws on a combination of research strengths unique to Washington University. “I can’t think of another institution where we could have put together this wide range of cutting-edge expertise,” Dr. Luby says.
With the Metcalfes’ support, Dr. Luby was able to expand the study to include a project focused on epigenetics, an emerging area of research that may prove critical to understanding how adversity affects brain development and health. Often described as the interface of nature and nurture, epigenetics investigates the influence of environment on gene expression.
Dr. Luby is grateful for the opportunity to enhance the NIMH study. “The Metcalfes provided funding that could be used immediately to build on a study that had just launched,” she says. “The timing was perfect. This has accelerated the possibility of discovery. It is something every researcher dreams of.”
The Metcalfes’ gift extends the couple’s longstanding support of the university and their civic engagement in the St. Louis region. “It’s an investment in Washington University, in St. Louis, and at the same time in the future of mental health,” Mrs. Metcalfe explains.
Mr. Metcalfe followed in his parents’ footsteps when he attended Washington University, earning his bachelor’s degree in history. Numerous family members also are alumni, including Mrs. Metcalfe’s father. A member of the School of Medicine National Council since 2007, Mr. Metcalfe is chair emeritus of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, an international law firm that doubled in size under his leadership. The couple are sustaining charter members of the Danforth Circle Chancellor’s Level of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society.
The NIMH study could lead to more targeted early interventions for young children at risk of developing or already facing depression, such as a pilot project involving parent-child interaction therapy that Dr. Luby is implementing in a local school district. “The power of the research is that it could have a real impact by informing public policy and funding for programs that make a difference early on in a child’s life,” Mr. Metcalfe says. “I don’t know of anything that’s more important than helping children grow up to lead productive, healthy lives.”