Session sponsored by Wiley - Publisher of Developmental Psychobiology


Deborah Han- University of Denver, Denver, USA


Dr. Megan Gunnar – University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA

Symposium Presenters

  • Clarissa Filetti, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
  • Deborah Han, University of Denver, Denver, USA
  • Lisa Hiura, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, USA
  • Plamina Dimanova, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Full Description of the Symposium

In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared social connection as a public health priority, emphasizing the critical role that social connection plays in transforming health and well-being across individuals and communities. In line with this call to action, it is essential to understand the normative neurobiological development of social relationships, including how relationships may buffer against the negative effects of stress and promote adaptive outcomes. In this symposium, we will present on various physiological and neural mechanisms by which different types of social partners affect developmental outcomes. The first two presentations focus on who can effectively buffer the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to stress in children and adolescents. The first presentation explores whether “sharing the load” of a stressor with a close friend influences cortisol reactivity to the stressor in adolescence. The second presentation examines whether siblings can buffer the cortisol stress response for children and adolescents. The third presentation features a non-human animal model of social bonding, highlighting the neural circuitry that underlies pair bonding behaviors with romantic partners in the socially monogamous prairie vole across different age groups. The fourth presentation describes associations between caregiver-child relationships and the development of the corticolimbic tract (structure, function, and connectivity) in humans, and how these neurobiological differences relate to well-being and resilient functioning. Finally, Dr. Megan Gunnar, an expert on the neurobiological development of social relationships, will serve as the discussant, highlighting integrative themes across all four presentations and facilitating discussion of implications and future directions. In line with ISDP’s priorities, this symposium will feature research across multiple species, biological systems, methodologies, and developmental stages.

Abstract for Presentation 1*


Clarissa R. Filetti, M.A., Graduate Student in Developmental Psychology, University of Minnesota

Social buffering is thought to be a key mechanism by which social support regulates mammalian stress responses and supports healthy development. Parents serve as powerful social buffers of their children’s stress-responsive neuroendocrine system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. However, parental social buffering efficacy diminishes over the pubertal transition from childhood to adolescence, a developmental period in which stress response systems become more reactive and sensitivity to peer evaluation intensifies. Given the waning of parental social buffering potency during this period of heightened risk, it is critical to investigate whether other salient figures in an adolescent’s life, such as close friends, take over as stress buffers. In adulthood, having a close friend support the participant in preparing for a stressful speech task (Trier Social Stress Task, TSST) reduces cortisol elevations to the task. Notably, a previous study by our research group showed that the same protocol in adolescence results in an increase in the cortisol response, perhaps reflecting the intense sensitivity to social evaluation in adolescence. According to Beckes and Coan’s (2011) Social Baseline Theory, social partners can reduce stress when they “share the load” in stressful situations. We tested the hypothesis that close friends increase stress reactivity in the TSST when they help the adolescent prepare for the task but reduce stress when the close friend and the adolescent prepare together, and both undergo the TSST. The results of this study indicate the nuanced nature of social stress buffering and social evaluation stress during the adolescent period.

Abstract for Presentation 2*


Deborah Han, M.A., Graduate Student in Developmental Psychology, University of Denver

Given that parental buffering is less effective and peers may increase stress responses during adolescence, there is a critical need to identify social support figures that can effectively buffer the stress response for this age group. One source of social support that has yet to be investigated in social buffering research is siblings. Previous research provides correlational evidence that positive sibling relationships may protect against the negative effects of stressors on children’s and adolescents’ psychosocial outcomes. However, these studies are limited to self-report questionnaires (i.e., have not used laboratory tasks to induce acute stress) and lack physiological measures. We will present data from a recently completed study on whether siblings could buffer the cortisol stress response to an acute stressor for children and adolescents. In this study, 137 participants (79 children aged 9-11 years, 71 adolescents aged 15-17 years; 49% female) completed the Trier Social Stress Test after being randomly assigned to prepare for the task with their sibling (of the same age or up to four years older) or a stranger (trained research assistant). Participants provided saliva samples up to seven times across the session and multilevel modeling was conducted to examine whether individuals’ trajectories of salivary cortisol differed by condition (sibling versus stranger), age group (child versus adolescent), and condition x age interaction. We found that preparing with a sibling versus a stranger resulted in lower cortisol reactivity to the stressor for adolescents, but not for children. Implications for intervention and directions for future research will be discussed.

Abstract for Presentation 3*


Lisa Hiura, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado Boulder

The rewarding bonds we forge in adulthood, particularly our pair bonds with romantic partners, have numerous protective effects on our brains and behaviors. Most of what we know about the biology underlying pair bonding comes from the study of adult animals; however, several neurodevelopmental conditions are hallmarked by atypical social engagement that emerges in adolescence. This highlights the need to investigate the development of social bonding behavior and the plasticity of neural circuits that support social behavioral transitions over the lifespan. In this presentation, we focus on the developmental onset of pair bonding behavior in the socially monogamous prairie vole model. We paired male and female prairie voles for 48 hours in three different age groups: juveniles, periadolescents, and adults. We then examined huddling behavior in a standard 3-hour partner preference test, during which subjects can freely choose to spend time with their familiar paired partner or a novel other-sex stimulus animal. We will present our findings on age- and sex- dependent differences in the emergence of a partner preference, indicating the onset of the capacity for pair bonding. We will further highlight how contemporary machine learning methodologies to analyze complex social interactions can proffer novel insights into brain-behavioral development. These approaches can inform translational models of prosocial development and provide powerful opportunities to examine the impacts of early environments and adversity on the capacity to form protective pair bonds.

Abstract for Presentation 4


Plamina Dimanova, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Associate, Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at the University of Zurich

Socioemotional abilities represent a skill set for social and emotional functioning. Socioemotional skills are important to individuals’ everyday lives and affect their present and future mental well-being. Neurally, socioemotional skills are supported by corticolimbic brain regions, including neocortical (e.g., prefrontal cortex, insula, temporoparietal junction) and subcortical areas (e.g., amygdala, hippocampus). The development of socioemotional skills strongly relies on caregiver-child experiences and is paralleled by the maturation of corticolimbic brain regions. This presentation will describe the structural development of the corticolimbic tract and inform about region-specific and age-dependent trajectories assessed in an openly available large-scale neuroimaging data set (Healthy Brain Network; Alexander et al., 2017). Furthermore, intergenerational neuroimaging evidence will be presented and the presence and relevance of parent-child corticolimbic brain structural similarity (~100/50 mother-child/father-child dyads) will be discussed, particularly in respect of children’s mental well-being. An increase in knowledge on the mechanisms underlying the development of the corticolimbic tract that extend beyond a single individual promises to improve our understanding of complex skills development and intergenerational transmission. Such research may hold the potential to inform about typical or atypical corticolimbic functioning, ultimately