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Community Health professor speaks of 'behavioral misadventures'

In Salomon 101 last night, Professor of Community Health Stephen Buka '78 described his research into intervention in adolescent drug abuse and suicide. Buka's talk, entitled "Predicting and Preventing Adolescent Behavioral Misadventures: 50 Years of Discovery in Rhode Island," was this year's Lipsitt-Duchin Lecture in Child Behavior and Development.

Buka separated his talk into three sections: defining adolescent behavioral misadventures, presenting research that he and others conducted on behavioral studies in Rhode Island and preventing behavioral misadventures. Buka incorporated a significant amount of research conducted by Professor Emeritus of Psychology Lewis Lipsitt into his presentation. Lipsitt sponsored the lecture with his wife Edna Duchin.

Humans are born with reflexive behavior, Buka said. "Reflexive behaviors are designed to help perpetuate life. As the infant grows, learning is in place to help maximize positive experiences, avoid negative experiences and again, perpetuate life."

With slides of a baby swimming, he demonstrated the relationship between reflex and learning as the babies' swimming movements progressed through the first few months of life. The slides showed that a one-month-old baby swam more naturally than three and five-month-old babies. Buka said that the changes signal the progress of babies whose reflexive behavior develops into learned behavior with time.

The main question for research, Buka said, was finding the balance between behavioral capacities and environmental hazards paired with social demands. Buka explained that behavioral misadventures, or setbacks, occurred when "conditions of the environment exceed the capacities of the individual." Buka used Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as an example where death can be avoided by altering a child's sleeping environment. Buka showed results of the ongoing "Back to Sleep" campaign, which launched in 1994 and encouraged parents to put their newborns to sleep on their backs. Starting that year, there was a large increase of parents putting their children to sleep on their backs and a significant decrease of SIDS incidences.

In the second part of his talk, Buka revealed the research he presented in the 50-year, three-generation longitudinal New England Family Study, which he directs.

In the study, which tracks 17,000 infants born in New England in the 1960s, Buka and his fellow researchers looked at women who smoked during pregnancy to see if their offspring were more inclined to smoke as adults. Buka said he originally doubted significant correlations, but was staggered by the study's findings: Subjects whose mothers smoked heavily during pregnancy were nearly twice as likely to become regular smokers and over twice as likely to become nicotine-dependent in comparison to subjects whose mothers did not smoke during pregnancy.

Buka's study also revealed behavioral parallels in adolescent and adult behavior. Subjects who showed "impulsive behavior" at age seven were four times as likely to develop gambling addictions as adults. In addition, the "impulsive" child subjects were three times more likely to make a suicidal attempt.

Buka also talked about effective and ineffective intervention strategies. Buka quoted his grandmother's mantra "it's too late to pray when the devil comes" to stress the importance of early intervention.

He cited a study in which children from impoverished families received "educational intervention" in the early years of life.

This intervention involved weekly visits from researchers who provided intellectual stimulation to children from low-income families. Children who received this benefit consistently showed higher levels of cognitive performance throughout childhood in comparison to their counterparts. In addition, these children showed lower risk behavior levels and had fewer behavioral problems.

"Risk for misadventures can be ameliorated by early educational intervention," said Buka.

After the lecture, Buka answered questions from the faculty-dominated audience regarding his past and future research projects.


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