The real danger of separating children from parents is not the psychological stress – it’s the biological time bomb. The screaming and crying, the anguish and desolation is gut-wrenching. But the fallout pales in comparison to the less visible long-term effects that are more sinister and dangerous.
Separating children from their parents, in a strange land, among strangers, causes the most extreme life stress a child can experience. And it causes profound and irreversible changes in how their DNA is packaged and which genes are turned on and off in the cells of the body, in organs like the pancreas, the lungs, heart and brain – leading to lifelong changes in its structure and function.
I am the director of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and the Maltz Research Laboratories at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where scientists study how genes and the environment shape the development of the human brain.
Our studies and those of many other researchers around the world have shown that early life stress alters how DNA is packaged, which makes cells function differently than their original mandate.
How DNA is packaged alters its function
How DNA, the blueprint of life, is packaged in cells dictates how cells function. Virtually every cell in the body has the same DNA, as they are all descendants of that first fertilized egg. But a liver cell knows it’s not a lung cell, which knows it’s not a brain cell. The way the cells “know” has to do with how the DNA in cells is packaged, a process called “epigenetics.”
DNA is organized in a complicated protein package, which acts like insulation, protecting the DNA strand. This insulation determines which genes are activated to make the proteins required by a particular cell. Between the various tissues and organs, the packaging of DNA varies – like a liver cell versus a lung cell – allowing each cells to have a unique collection of proteins.
Studies of children who have experienced major early childhood stress reveal that dysfunction in many organs in the body years after the stressful event, raising the risk of heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, poor school performance, drug abuse and mental illness. Scientists in the institute where I work have recently shown that the sensitivity of DNA packaging to environmental stress is greater during the first five years of life than all of the rest of life combined.
Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, performed a controversial series of studies in the 1950s on infant monkeys that were isolated from their mothers for a few months – a similar situation to the period of separation experienced by young immigrant children at our borders, which is getting even longer in spite of the latest policy. Harlow’s infant monkeys became profoundly disturbed for the rest of their lives.