Developmental Psychobiology Research Center

About the lab

At the Developmental Psychobiology (DPB) Research Center we conduct research at the crossroad among behavioral sciences, infant research, neuroendocrinology, behavioral epigenetics, and neuroscience. Our major goal is to understand how what happens between us - i.e., human relationships - helps to shape what happens inside us - the neurobiological connections that underlie our neurology, behavior, and phenotype.

​We are especially interested in the study of the multi-omic dimensions underlying early human typical and atypical development - including preterm birth, sensory deficit, neurodevelopmental conditions, and other environmental alterations. Specific attention to the first thousand days of life and to the role of early parent-child interaction further characterizes our research.

Featured projects (15)

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Parenting children with neurodevelopmentla disorders and disability is a daily challenge that may expose parents to increased risk of psychological and affective symptoms. For these parents understanding the communicative signals and the mind of their babies is often difficult. Video-feedback interventions are effective in promoting healthy development and the quality of parent-child relationship in the first months and years of life. Nonetheless, it is not always possible for parents to come to regular video-feedback visits as they may live far from centers that promote such powerful early intervention progams. This project aims to develop, deliver and assess for effectiveness a protocol for a videoconfering video-feedback intervention for parents of children with neurodevelopmental disorder.
Which are the consequences of prenatal stress in women and infants during the Covid-19 outbreak? In this research project, we will study the level of emotional and psychological distress of women who were pregnant during the first nine months of 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic in Northern Italy. A network of more than 10 neonatologies will be involved. Second, we will follow-up their infants from birth to 12 months for emotional, social and cognitive development assessments. Third, we will explore the role of epigenetic regulation of specific stress-related target genes in mediating the relationship between maternal stress and infants' outcomes with a longitudinal and prospective approach.
How can we grant continuity of care to families of children with neurodevelopmental disability during the Covid-19 emergency? ​One of the indirect consequences of the Covid-19 epidemics is the suspension of the traditional rehabilitation programs for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. These children and their parents may feel alone during this unprecedented emergency. By means of tele-communication we can provide adequate support and mantain healthcare engagement while respecting the physical distancing norms required to mitigate the virus spread. The project consists in the provision of child programs and parental support in tele-rehabiliation and in the assessment of its efficacy and effectiveness for families.
This is an international research group of researchers and clinicians working with fathers in different countries: Canada, Australia, USA, UK, Italy, France, Denmark, Sweden. The groups is coordinating an international survey on fathers of infants admitted to neontal units during the Covid-19 emergency and the lockdown phase.

Featured research (54)

Background The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected healthcare professionals’ lives. We investigated the potential mental health risk faced by healthcare professionals working in neonatal units in a multicentre cross-sectional observational study. Methods We included all healthcare personnel of seven level-3 and six level-2 neonatal units in Tuscany, Italy. We measured the level of physical exposure to COVID-19 risk, self-reported pandemic-related stress, and mental health load outcomes (anxiety, depression, burnout, psychosomatic symptoms, and post-traumatic symptoms) using validated, self-administered, online questionnaires during the second pandemic wave in Italy (October 2020 to March 2021). Results We analyzed 314 complete answers. Scores above the clinical cutoff were reported by 91% of participants for symptoms of anxiety, 29% for post-traumatic symptoms, 13% for burnout, and 3% for symptoms of depression. Moreover, 50% of the participants reported at least one psychosomatic symptom. Pandemic-related stress was significantly associated with all the measured mental health load outcomes, with an Odds Ratio of 3.31 (95% confidence interval: 1.87, 5.88) for clinically relevant anxiety, 2.46 (1.73, 3.49) for post-traumatic symptoms, 1.80 (1.17, 2.79) for emotional exhaustion, and 2.75 (1.05, 7.19) for depression. Female health care professionals displayed a greater risk of anxiety, and male health care professionals and nurses, of depressive symptoms. Conclusions Despite the low direct clinical impact of COVID-19 in newborns, neonatal professionals, due to both living in a situation of uncertainty and personal exposure to contacts with parents and other relatives of the newborns, and having to carry out activities once routine and now fraught with uncertainty, displayed clear signs of mental health load outcomes. They must be considered a specific population at risk for psychological consequences during the pandemic.
Background High levels of mental health problems have been consistently reported among neonatal healthcare professionals. While studies suggest that personality, coping strategies and safety culture might contribute to the psychological wellbeing of healthcare professionals, they have not been systematically investigated in low-risk (i.e., neonatal wards; NWs) and high-risk (i.e., neonatal intensive care units; NICUs) neonatal contexts. The current study investigated potential predictors of professionals' emotional distress and whether they differ according to the work setting (i.e., NICUs vs. NWs). Methods Healthcare professionals ( N = 314) from 7 level-3 (i.e., NICUs) and 6 level-2 (i.e., NWs) neonatal units in Tuscany were included. Emotional distress (i.e., anxiety, depression, psychosomatic, post-traumatic stress symptoms and emotional exhaustion), Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) and Behavioral Approach System (BAS) sensitivity, coping strategies and safety culture were assessed through well-validated, self-reported questionnaires. Results Greater BIS/BAS sensitivity, avoidance coping strategies and a sub-dimension of safety culture (i.e., stress recognition) were significantly associated with greater risk of emotional distress, whereas job satisfaction emerged as a protective factor. Three specific profiles of professionals in term of personality, coping and safety culture were identified and further predicted emotional distress. Neonatal wards and NICUs personnel presented different associations between personality, coping and safety culture. Conclusion These findings highlighted significant modifiable contributors of neonatal mental healthcare professionals' wellbeing. Institutional initiatives that target these factors and, particularly, job satisfaction may promote professionals' emotional wellbeing and thus improve caring processes.
In the pediatric context, parents’ and patients’ engagement in the care process is strongly rec- ommended and could be pursued using patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs), which therefore become useful for planning and monitoring treatments. Nevertheless, few data are available from families of children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as visual impairment (VI). The Visual Impairment Developmental Autonomy (VIDA) project aims to develop and validate a patient- and parent-reported tool to measure the most relevant aspects concerning everyday adaptive abilities in children and adolescents with visual impairment: the VIDA scale. The present paper illustrates the Delphi process of item generation engaging parents and patients and presents a protocol for the validation of this new co-designed tool in an Italian visually impaired pediatric population. Twenty-three families and five adolescents provided a list of 192 items and assessed their relevance. Items were categorized in 5 areas of adaptive abilities (i.e., table manners, clothing, personal hygiene, orientation and mobility, and socio-affectivity) and into three age ranges based on the patient’s age. The final 102-item Vida Scale will be admin- istered to a minimum of 300 visually impaired children together with measures of quality of life and child adjustment to investigate its psychometric properties.
Objectives The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a particularly adverse and stressful environment for expecting mothers, possibly enhancing feelings of anxiety and parenting stress. The present work assesses mothers' anxiety levels at delivery and parenting stress after 3 months as moderated by home-visiting sessions. Methods Women (n = 177) in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during the COVID-19 lockdown were enrolled in northern Italy and split into those who did and did not receive home visits. After 3 months, the association between anxiety at delivery and parenting stress was assessed with bivariate correlations in the whole sample and comparing the two groups. Results Higher anxiety at birth correlated with greater perceived stress after 3 months. Mothers who received at least one home-visiting session reported lower parenting stress at 3 months than counterparts who did not receive home visits. Conclusions for Practice The perinatal period is a sensitive time window for mother-infant health, especially during a critical time like the COVID-19 pandemic. We suggest that home-visiting programs could be beneficial during global healthcare emergencies to promote maternal well-being after delivery.
Stress exposure during pregnancy is critically linked with maternal mental health and child development. The effects might involve altered patterns of DNA methylation in specific stress-related genes (i.e., glucocorticoid receptor gene, NR3C1, and serotonin transporter gene, SLC6A4) and might be moderated by the gestational timing of stress exposure. In this study, we report on NR3C1 and SLC6A4 methylation status in Italian mothers and infants who were exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown during different trimesters of pregnancy. From May 2020 to February 2021, 283 mother–infant dyads were enrolled at delivery. Within 24 h from delivery, buccal cells were collected to assess NR3C1 (44 CpG sites) and SLC6A4 (13 CpG sites) methylation status. Principal component (PC) analyses were used to reduce methylation data dimension to one PC per maternal and infant gene methylation. Mother–infant dyads were split into three groups based on the pregnancy trimester (first, second, third), during which they were exposed to the COVID-19 lockdown. Mothers and infants who were exposed to the lockdown during the first trimester of pregnancy had lower NR3C1 and SLC6A4 methylation when compared to counterparts exposed during the second or third trimesters. The effect remained significant after controlling for confounders. Women who were pregnant during the pandemic and their infants might present altered epigenetic biomarkers of stress-related genes. As these epigenetic marks have been previously linked with a heightened risk of maternal psychiatric problems and less-than-optimal child development, mothers and infants should be adequately monitored for psychological health during and after the pandemic.

Lab head

Livio Provenzi
  • Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences
About Livio Provenzi
  • I am a psychologist and a researcher in developmental psychobiology. My research projects integrate methodologies from infant research, neuroendocrinology, and behavioral epigenetics in order to understand how the early caregiving environment associates with cognitive, social, and emotional development in healthy and at-risk infants. I coordinate the Developmental Psychobiology (DPB) Research Center at the IRCCS Mondino Foundation and University of Pavia, Italy.

Members (6)

Serena Grumi
  • IRCCS Fondazione Istituto Neurologico Nazionale C. Mondino
Elisa Roberti
  • IRCCS Fondazione Istituto Neurologico Nazionale C. Mondino
Luisa Vercellino
  • University of Pavia
Shaghayegh Parsanejad
  • University of Pavia
Sofia Attolini
  • University of Pavia
Julia Maccarini
  • University of Pavia IRCCS Fondazione Istituto Neurologico Nazionale C. Mondino

Alumni (3)

Giada Pettenati
  • IRCCS Eugenio Medea
Elisa Rinaldi
  • University of Pavia
Beril Çalgan
  • University of Pavia