Carolina de Weerth

Radboud University Medical Center

Research focus
Carolina de Weerth is a developmental psychobiologist. She is Full Professor and PI at Radboud University Medical Center and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition & Behaviour (The Netherlands). Her interdisciplinary research focuses on uncovering how early environmental factors influence development, partly determining children’s further developmental trajectories. Carolina specifically studies relations between prenatal and postnatal maternal stress and anxiety, as well as caregiving choices and quality, on children’s development, including physical health and behavioral regulation. She includes relevant physiological systems and biomarkers to uncover the mechanisms underlying these relations (e.g. the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the intestinal microbiota, maternal milk, telomeres).

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
I completed an investigation in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, examining the effects of a probiotic dairy food product on 5-6-year-old children’s cognition. We started by giving 270 children different cognitive tests. Then, we divided the children into three groups: one group took the probiotic supplement, one group took a non-probiotic supplement and the third group had their usual diet. After four months, we tested them again. We found that children improved in cognition across time, but no effects of the probiotic product on cognition. However, we could not execute the study exactly as planned. E.g., due to a lengthy teacher strike, we were only able to give half of the planned supplement. Possibly, the children didn’t receive enough to see effects on cognition. Interestingly, we did find that the probiotic group children had much lower levels of stress hormones than the other two groups. Potentially, the probiotic reduced their bodily stress. I also used the fellowship to train the research and English language capacities of our local assistants, and to organize a training course for women interested in setting up small businesses producing healthy probiotic dairy products, and a workshop for local stakeholders interested in adopting probiotic micro-businesses within their projects.

My plans for the future
I am currently in the process of finalizing the publication of the four scientific papers describing my work in Côte d’Ivoire. Together with my former postdoc, I maintain contact with our research assistants from the study. We continue to build their scientific capacities by working together with them on our publications and by supporting them financially so that they can participate in online courses and summer schools and can continue to develop their English skills. Together with colleagues from the University of Zurich (including JF fellow Nora Raschle) and University of California, I obtained a JF Young Scholars grant to work on Biobehavioral Synchrony together. This project started in March 2020, is going very well and has been very fulfilling. I’ve involved one of my PhDs and a postdoc in this project. To date, we’ve visited each other’s research groups virtually, we’ve organized two successful SRCD symposia on synchrony, and we’re continuing to work on our joint meta-analysis on synchrony and learning. Finally, I continue to collaborate with my JF fellow colleague Simone Kühn (University Hamburg) as well as with other JF fellows occasionally.