On today’s WHO World Mental Health Day, the Jacobs Foundation, an international Zurich-based foundation supporting child and youth development, announces the recipients of this year’s Klaus J. Jacobs Awards. The Research Prize, endowed with 1 million Swiss francs , goes to Michael Meaney. The Best Practice Prize, which includes an award of 200,000 Swiss francs, goes to the trauma intervention program SHARPZ in Zambia. The Klaus J. Jacobs Awards will be presented on December 5, 2014 at the University of Zurich.
Michael Meaney – 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize Laureate
Michael Meaney, a McGill University professor and a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is awarded the 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in recognition of his ground-breaking achievements in child and youth development. A jury of experts selected Meaney for this honour because of his “pioneering, cutting edge research on the biological mechanisms by which parental behaviour affects offspring development. Beyond the purely scientific value of his research, Meaney’s work has tangible implications for psychosocial interventions and social policy measures to promote child and youth development.”
Meaney studies how experiences shape biology at the molecular level. His research focuses on the following questions: How do genes and environment interact to produce individual differences in brain function? Why are some better able than others to deal with illness, psychological problems or adverse life circumstances? Is it possible to determine an individual’s susceptibility to certain environmental influences by looking at that person’s biology, and can interventions reduce or even eliminate that susceptibility?
Life experiences alter genes
In the 1990s, using studies of mother rats and their pups, Meaney was able to identify biological mechanisms by which a mother’s care for her young – that is, her behaviour, rather than her genes – can result in a long-term change in the offspring’s development.
In 2009, Meaney and his colleagues applied these insights to human studies. They looked at samples of brain tissue from suicide victims who had been abused as children, suicide victims who had not been abused, and individuals who had not been abused and had died of natural causes.
For the first time, it was possible to show for humans that childhood experiences leave biochemical markers in an individual’s DNA. Experiences in the family context, particularly during the first years of life, become part of a child’s biology and influence the child’s health and attainments throughout life – in positive as well as negative ways.
“One size doesn’t fit all” – The future of intervention lies in customization
“Our biggest challenge now is to understand the biology of vulnerability, the risk an individual carries,” explains Meaney. “Second, can we then chart the reversibility through intervention programs? And can we evaluate the biological impact of the intervention at the level of the individual?”
Meaney’s research has the potential to produce significant changes in social policy. Now that we know that childhood experiences change how genes are expressed, we may be able to identify the children who are most at risk and put in place appropriate interventions. This will make it possible to develop therapies tailored to the needs of each child – therapies that are likely to produce the greatest benefits and to be most cost-effective over the long term.
Serenity Harm Reduction Programme Zambia –
2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize Laureate
Zambia is one of the African countries that are most badly affected by the HIV/Aids pandemic. Almost 8 percent of today’s population (approximately 1.1 million people) is HIV-infected. This led to the aggravation of poverty and other consequences many of the young people and their families are trapped in. Not uncommonly the use of alcohol or drugs is a means of coping with social and economic stress.
The Serenity Harm Reduction Programme Zambia (SHARPZ) is a collaborative agency offering comprehensive alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention services as well as targeted programs to promote mental health and prevent harmful substance use. SHARPZ takes a public-health approach to the issue of drug and alcohol abuse, influenced by the social and medical realities of the response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It has developed evidence-based interventions designed to address not just the issues that arise from substance abuse, but the factors that contribute to it, such as childhood trauma.
SHARPZ has used Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) as an evidence-based approach to address the needs of children who have been affected by trauma and their families. “SHARPZ is not only an active participant in many of the studies of TF-CBT that have been conducted in Zambia; it is also the one organization that has continued to provide counsellors trained in TF-CBT and ongoing supervision, and that offers these services to the community on a regular basis”, explains Dr. Mark van Ommeren, Mental Health Expert of the World Health Organisation.
“This is an exceptional achievement that is extremely rare in low-resource countries – the art of sustaining an evidence-based intervention,” according to a statement by the Jacobs Foundation Board of Trustees. “SHARPZ has been chosen to receive the 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize in recognition of its leadership in implementing evidence-based best practices to help traumatized children in a low-resource, high-stress population.”