Arizona Health Sciences Center | July 27, 2012

Children in Foster Care Develop Resilience Through Compassion Training

A new study involving the UA finds that a particular therapeutic intervention appears to improve the mental and physical health of adolescents in foster care.

A study found that adolescents who practiced compassion training showed reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, reduced anxiety and increased feelings of hopefulness. Dr. Charles Raison

A new study shows that a therapeutic intervention called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, appears to improve the mental and physical health of adolescents in foster care. CBCT is a tool that provides strategies for people to develop more compassionate attitudes toward themselves and others.

“The beneficial effects of CBCT on anxiety and feelings of hopelessness suggest that this intervention may provide immediate benefit to foster children,” said Dr. Charles Raison, who holds a joint appointment as associate professor with the department of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson and as the Barry and Janet Lang Associate Professor of Integrative Mental Health with the UA Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“We are even more encouraged by the finding that CBCT reduced levels of inflammation,” Raison said. “Our hope is that CBCT may help contribute to the long-term health and well-being of foster care children, not only during childhood, but also as they move into their adult years.”

The study, recently published online in the journals Psychoneuroendocrinology and Child and Family Studies, was conducted by researchers with Emory University in Atlanta. Raison previously was with Emory and is corresponding author of the study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Children with early-life adversity tend to have elevated levels of inflammation across their lifespan,” said Thaddeus Pace, lead author on the paper in Psychoneuroendocrinology and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory. “Inflammation is known to play a fundamental role in the development of a number of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression.”

Children in foster care have a high prevalence of trauma in their lives – sexual abuse, parental neglect, family violence, homelessness, exposure to drugs, separation from biological family and some are regularly moved from one place to another. The study finds that adolescents who practiced CBCT showed reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, reduced anxiety and increased feelings of hopefulness. The more the study participants practiced, the greater the improvement observed in these measures.

CBCT is a multi-week program developed at Emory University by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, one of the study’s co-authors. Although derived from Tibetan Buddhist teachings on compassion, the CBCT program has been designed to be completely secular in nature.

More information about the study, which was conducted in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Human Services and the Division of Family and Child Services, is available online.

Raison joined the UA in October 2011 to further his research in mind-body medicine. Raison’s work focuses on inflammation and the development of depression in response to illness and stress. He aims to translate neurobiological findings into novel pharmacological and behavioral interventions. These interventions include teaching compassion meditation as a preventive health strategy and using anti-inflammatory pharmacological agents for treatment-resistant depression.

“My research had convinced me that one of the important next steps forward in mind-body medicine was to understand the biology of health-relevant group processes. The UA has tremendous interdisciplinary strengths in this area,” he said. “I came with the hopes of joining my expertise in immune/neuroendocrine functioning to the strengths in psychiatry in neuroimaging and autonomic nervous system functioning, with the goal of conducting cutting-edge work examining how interdependent processes at all levels – from the genes to society itself – contribute to health and well-being.”

Raison also is a member of the UA Mind, Brain and Body Research Collaborative, an interdisciplinary and translational collaborative of UA investigators with funded studies of social-emotional processes and the neural systems through which they affect physical diseases.

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Jean Spinelli

Arizona Health Sciences Center