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Michael Myers, PhD

Dr. Michael Myers has over 45 years of research experience in the field of Developmental Psychobiology, with over 140 peer-reviewed publications and continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1984. His animal model and human infant studies have focused on understanding the importance of the interplay between biological and behavioral processes during early development, especially as they relate to early mother-infant interactions as shapers of risk and resilience to emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders.

Career Path

Dr. Myers received his PhD from the University of Connecticut in Biobehavioral Sciences. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Physiology & Biophysics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, where after he was appointed a Research Associate. From 1981 to 1984, he served as Attending Psychologist in the Psychiatry Department of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1984, he was appointed Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), as well as a Research Scientist V at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI). He was promoted to Associate Professor in both Psychiatry and Pediatrics and in 2002, to Professor of Behavioral Biology in Psychiatry and Pediatrics at CUMC. From 2001 to 2007, Dr. Myers served as the Chief of Developmental Psychobiology at NYSPI and Chief of Developmental Neuroscience until 2016. Dr. Myers’s integral involvement as Co-Director of the Nurture Science Program began in 2009 and continues today.

Basic Research

During his postdoctoral training, first at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and later at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Myers focused on the complex brain-behavior relationships involved in the expression of adult hypertension. Understanding how the central nervous system contributes to the expression of physiological disease remains an important topic of mind-body research. His research demonstrated that not only did the spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR), an important genetic model of hypertension, have peripheral differences in sympathetic control of blood vessel contractility, but these animals also expressed profound differences in central nervous system catecholamine circuits.

Moreover, behavioral hyperactivity was associated with these central nervous system findings. However, Dr. Myers’s later studies showed that although hyperactivity and salt avidity were reasonably considered to be associated with SHR hypertension through co-selection, they were actually genetically independent of the hypertensive trait of the SHR. These studies raised awareness of the pitfall of assuming the intuitively obvious.

After joining Myron Hofer’s group at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Myers launched a series of studies that focused on understanding how mother-infant interactions shape infant development. Findings from other groups showed that when SHR rat pups were reared by a normotensive mother, their adult pressures were lower. This suggested SHR mothers might be contributing to their offspring’s hypertension, but it was not known if this might be related to differences in their behavioral interactions. Dr. Myers conducted a series of mother-infant behavioral observational studies, discovering that specific, naturally occurring mother-infant behaviors (such as licking, grooming, and arched nursing) were linked to individual differences in offspring physiology (such as blood pressure) in adulthood. These studies had a profound impact on shaping research in the field of Developmental Psychobiology. They also prompted a series of published studies that demonstrated the importance of early feeding activities on the cardiovascular system in both animal models and human infants.

Shortly after moving to CUMC, Dr. Myers engaged in studies that focused on understanding organized activities of the autonomic and central nervous systems during the prenatal period. These studies documented human fetal heart rate patterns associated with maternal depression or anxiety. However, a larger body of work encompassing 16 papers was done in collaboration with the group headed by Raymond Stark, MD at CUMC. Dr. Stark developed techniques for monitoring fetal baboon physiology 24 hours per day during the last few weeks of gestation. These studies captured many key characteristics of fetal primate development, and were the first studies to assess primate fetus behavioral sleep states using both autonomic and electroencephalographic (EEG) signatures. These studies also showed that these states exhibited diurnal rhythms. Results from this model also showed the emergence of autonomic nervous system control of heart rate as indexed by measures of heart rate variability, and that these measures are profoundly affected by prenatal exposure to nicotine.

Paralleling the aforementioned studies in fetal baboons, Dr. Myers worked with CUMC colleagues to conduct and publish over a dozen studies that document key features of early human physiological and state development of both term and preterm infants. These studies covered numerous issues. Among the most significant findings were: novel methods for analysis of infant EEG; documented effects of prone-supine sleeping positions on the organization of sleep states; effects of diet on the quality of infant sleep; and effects of prenatal alcohol and smoking among Native American infants. This latter study played a major role in setting the stage for Dr. Myers’s involvement as Co-Director of the Physiological Assessment Center for a large-scale (12,000 infants) Prenatal Alcohol in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Stillbirth Network study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). This 10-year study, which completed enrollment in 2016, is the largest prospective study ever conducted to understand how prenatal smoking and alcohol alter risk for early adverse outcomes.

As Co-Director of the Nurture Science Program, Dr. Myers has conducted studies directly relating his animal studies of mother-infant interactions with clinical studies aimed at improving outcomes of preterm infants through Family Nurture Intervention in the NICU. During the past few years, several papers have been published from this study. Results from the Nurture Science Program’s first randomized controlled trial showed that facilitating mother-infant emotional connectedness in the NICU leads to: increases in brain activity (EEG power) at term age; improved maternal caregiving sensitivity; lower levels of maternal depressive and anxiety symptoms post-discharge; and at 18 months of age, improved cognitive ability, language skills, fewer attention problems, and fewer problems related to social skills. Replication studies are underway, as well as a new study of Family Nurture Intervention for children exhibiting behavioral symptoms at three-four years of age. These innovative studies set the stage for new approaches to interventions in the NICU and pediatric venues that focus not only on the clinical care of these infants, but also on increasing mother and family nurturing.

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