The Network on Psychopathology and Development has its roots in an earlier network on depression and other affective disorders. In their efforts to trace the origins and life-course of depression, the investigators in this earlier network had become increasingly interested in the earliest signs and precursors of later psychopathology. By integrating findings from diverse disciplines, the Network on Depression sought to shed light on the unfolding of affective disorders over time and on the relationship between depression and other mental health problems that frequently occur with it.
Building on this work, the Network on Psychopathology and Development was formed to focus on developmental pathways toward psychopathology. Bringing together a broad range of perspectives and strategies, this network sought to elucidate the biological, psychological, and environmental factors that affect normal development during childhood and adolescence, as well as those that facilitate the development of mental health problems during these periods and adulthood. In exploring how psychopathologies form and progress throughout development, the researchers hoped to provide a knowledge base for more effective intervention and prevention strategies.
The network's investigators were drawn from a wide range of fields, including clinical and developmental psychology, psychiatry, pediatrics, the neurosciences, genetic epidemiology, sociology, and biostatistics. Their research activities explored several themes:
The continuum of behavioral development: Investigators were interested in the full spectrum of behavior, from normal development, to moderate dysfunction, to illness and severe dysfunction.
The dynamics of change: A central interest of the network was to understand how, when, and why individuals move back and forth between a normal development pathway and one that may lead to psychopathology. Accordingly, the network was interested not only in how risk factors and vulnerabilities interplay to form trajectories toward psychopathology, but also in how protective factors may facilitate healthy development or generate individual resilience.
Pathways to psychopathology: The network sought to identify and integrate factors in several domains of development, including cognitive, psychobiological, behavioral/personality, and social context. Members developed new methods to assess functioning in each of these domains and to integrate data across domains in order to draw "profiles" of characteristics that may signal vulnerability for specific problems later in development. The network gave special attention to the role of critical transitions in development, such as a child's entry into school or puberty.
Intervention: To prevent the full-fledged expression of a disorder later in development, we must be able to identify those individuals most at risk and explore when and how to intervene effectively. To facilitate healthy development, we need to understand more clearly which combinations of factors promote mental health in the developing individual. Understanding what gives some people resilience — that is, the ability to return to stable, healthy development after a period of instability — is also critically important in designing interventions.
Brain and behavioral development: The healthy or abnormal development of a child's cognitive abilities, emotion processing, and behavior patterns cannot be fully understood without considering the organ centrally involved in such development: the brain. Over the past decade, the neurosciences have contributed powerful techniques that make it possible to explore directly the links between brain and behavioral development. "Growth spurts" in various brain regions may represent critical periods — windows of risk — in the early development of psychopathologies, and may be mirrored in the milestones of behavioral development. At the same time, the brain retains the ability to accommodate input throughout life; understanding this neuroplasticity may be critical in developing effective prevention and intervention strategies.
Progress and Plans
During its first phase of activities, 1996-1998, the network developed an integrated assessment battery for middle childhood. The battery spans several domains of child development, functioning, and outcomes. Components of the battery were developed and pilot-tested in the summer of 1998 when it was applied to a cohort of first-graders who have been studied longitudinally since birth. By embedding the pilot into a large-scale longitudinal study, we were able to evaluate the battery and its various components in the context of a broad range of developmental information available on these children. Preliminary findings confirm that a multi-domain approach is necessary to elucidate the complex pathways leading to normal or abnormal child development. Considerable interaction occurs between biology, behavior, and context that cannot be elucidated with methods focused on only one domain of development or other. Using a more integrated, multi-domain and dimensional approach to understanding the emergence of psychopathology will significantly improve our ability to predict which children may get derailed from normal developmental pathways and to target more effective early interventions. The data also confirm that the transition into school is an important period for the emergence of behavioral and emotional problems in children that may represent the roots for more serious problems in the future.
Other sets of network activities included parallel analyses of date from several other ongoing or completed longitudinal studies of child and adolescent development. Findings from this work confirm the importance of attending to the earliest precursors of later psychopathology many of which first become manifest during the elementary school years, years before they turn into "diagnosable" mental disorders. The careful study of developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence suggests that middle childhood or early adolescence may be a prime period for interventions to prevent the accumulation of symptomatology and the development of often co-occurring mental and physical conditions by middle-late adolescence and early adulthood.