COMSTAR project

COMSTAR is a five-year project, funded by the European Research Council, to investigate the consequences of early-life adversity for adult health and behaviour. Uniquely, we are investigating the same topic comparatively in humans and in European starlings. We know from many species that what happens to you early in life can have profound implications for how things turn out later on. However, there is still much we do not know about how and why this is the case; and we don't know the extent to which similar processes are at play in different kinds of organisms.

Our core ideas are the following. First, that early stress and adversity speed up ageing, which is the decline in biological performance over time with which all of us are familiar. In other words, individuals who experience adversity as children or juveniles are in a literal sense 'old before their time' at the physiological level. We are trying to measure this accelerated ageing in a number of ways, chiefly through the rate of loss of telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes that shorten with age), and through epigenetic changes to DNA. These so-called biomarkers are extremely useful as they give us an integrative window on the effects that developmental conditions have had on an individual's body.

Our second core idea is that individuals adjust their behaviour according to the physiological state that life has left them in. For example, if you were ageing rapidly, you might alter your decisions about when to reproduce; or you might alter the way you trade off immediate rewards and rewards that are deferred into the future. This process of behavioural adjustment to circumstances has been termed 'making the best of a bad job', but there is still much to learn about how it works. 'Making the best of a bad job' could explain a lot about why individuals with different developmental histories make such different decisions about everything from eating to self-protection.

Members of the COMSTAR group are examining different aspects of these core ideas in a variety of different ways, involving human epidemiological and psychological work, fieldwork in our wild starling colony in Northumberland, and experimental work with captive birds. It may appear strange to work with two species as distantly related as humans and a passerine bird. However, whilst different, they complement each other very well. Both are long-lived generalists in whom early life environment is known to matter a lot. In humans we are limited to correlational evidence, though often we have very long-term data sets of large size and high quality. In the starlings, we can experimentally manipulate early-life inputs, either through cross-fostering, or hand-rearing, thus allowing us to say more about causality than is ever really possible in the human case. By combining evidence from two very different systems, we hope to be able to say more than we would by working on either one alone.

The project began in October 2015. We will be posting all our research papers on this site as they are published. Group members also maintain individual web sites which you can access via their profiles here.