Leiden Family Lab studies grandparents, parents and children

In the Leiden Family Lab, three generations from the same family are put under the scrutiny. Biologists, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and educators are applying their knowledge and skills to study social anxiety, family abuse and obesity.

Genetic gradations

Professor of Child and Family Studies Marinus van IJzendoorn is one of the key researchers of the Health, Prevention and the Human Life Cycle research profile area, of which the Leiden Family Lab is part. He explains that the family study aims to examine the interaction of genes and environment through different generations. ‘In a family tree, there are various gradations of genetic connection, and there are differences between people who do or do not have a specific characteristic, i.e. fenotype. In this study, we focus on social anxiety, experiences with family violence, and obesity. Family members also share, to some extent, the environment in which they grew up and in which they function now.’

What exactly are you going to look at in all these family members?

‘Everything from molecules to neighbourhoods. In the case of abuse, for instance, stress-regulation plays a key role, so we are going to investigate the stress hormone cortisol. We are also using the fMRI scanner to see how brain activity changes when people are shown images related to family violence. In addition, we study how family members resolve conflicts, and we use interviews and questionnaires to make an inventory of the quality of the neighbourhood and the broader social network around these families.’

Paying attention to the environment

What makes this family study so unique?
‘Large-scale studies usually involve thousands of test subjects whose fenotype and environment can only be determined very superficially. This leads to an overemphasis on the influence of genetics, and too little attention is paid to the impact of the environment.’

‘Here, we study a relatively small number of multiple generation families, approximately forty families with fourteen members each. As a result, we can map their environment in great detail, we can describe their genetic make-up, and we can determine the extent to which people suffer from social anxiety, experiences with violence or obesity. All this information can then be studied statistically in such a way that we can see more clearly the mutual influence of specific genes and specific aspects of the environment.’

Collaboration between experts

Why focus on these three issues in particular?
‘Because of their great social relevance and the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. It is precisely by collaborating in interdisciplinary research that we can come closer to solving important problems relating to psychological and physical health.’

‘Biologists, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and educators all have their own expertise and measuring instruments. In a multiple generation study such as this one, you need experts who know a lot about children’s development, but also experts who know about older people and the specific problems they face. The Leiden Family Lab allows the University to shape the much praised but little practised interdisciplinary collaboration.’

See also

(6 June 2011)

Last Modified: 25-01-2012