“Toxic stress,” or adversity, in early childhood can lead to a lifetime of mental and physical problems—including disruption of the body’s metabolism or brain development —and pediatricians should take a leading role in providing care that addresses the problem, according to two reports in the journal Pediatrics co-authored by Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard School of Public Health and director of the University-wide Center on the Developing Child.

Adversity in early childhood has been linked with increases in heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other ailments, as well as learning and social difficulties, according to the reports.

“You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,” said Shonkoff, quoted by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof on Jan. 7. “We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning.”

Shonkoff was lead author on a Dec. 26, 2011 report titled “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress.” His co-author was pediatrician Andrew Garner, who was lead author on an accompanying policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics titled “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science Into Lifelong Health.”