Genes, environments, and time: The biology of adversity and resilience

W. Thomas Boyce, Pat Levitt, Fernando D. Martinez, Bruce S. McEwen, Jack P. Shonkoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Exposures to adverse environments, both psychosocial and physicochemical, are prevalent and consequential across a broad range of childhood populations. Such adversity, especially early in life, conveys measurable risk to learning and behavior and to the foundations of both mental and physical health. Using an interactive gene-environment-time (GET) framework, we survey the independent and interactive roles of genetic variation, environmental context, and developmental timing in light of advances in the biology of adversity and resilience, as well as new discoveries in biomedical research. Drawing on this rich evidence base, we identify 4 core concepts that provide a powerful catalyst for fresh thinking about primary health care for young children: (1) all biological systems are inextricably integrated, continuously “reading” and adapting to the environment and “talking back” to the brain and each other through highly regulated channels of cross-system communication; (2) adverse environmental exposures induce alterations in developmental trajectories that can lead to persistent disruptions of organ function and structure; (3) children vary in their sensitivity to context, and this variation is influenced by interactions among genetic factors, family and community environments, and developmental timing; and (4) critical or sensitive periods provide unmatched windows of opportunity for both positive and negative influences on multiple biological systems. These rapidly moving frontiers of investigation provide a powerful framework for new, science-informed thinking about health promotion and disease prevention in the early childhood period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere20201651
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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