Jessica Black

Associate Professor Jessica Black

Associate Professor Jessica Black is a pioneering researcher at the intersection of neuroscience and social work. The Bay Area native earned her PhD in educational psychology and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience at Stanford before joining the Boston College School of Social Work in 2010. An educational neuroscientist, Black uses both neuroimaging and environmental measures to help improve educational outcomes and school environments. We caught up with her before the start of the new academic year.

Where’s your research leading you? What studies are you working on?

I’m investigating how sleep is related to mental health among children and adolescents. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which family patterns such as parents’ awareness of the importance of sleep hygiene impacts children’s sleep. Rather than looking at adolescence as deficit-driven—“I thought I understood my child and now I don’t”—I’m taking a social work emphasis, giving adolescents a lot of information in a neutral to positive way so they view sleep as an opportunity to build their own health. Rather than, “You shouldn’t do X,” it’s, “Here’s why these behaviors are really helpful.”  

It’s one way of getting at the larger issue: how can we quell the incredible increase of mental health crises in adolescents? It’s exploding. The stress adolescents are under is at a deeper level than what some researchers are looking at. When we’re out of whack, out of homeostasis, and trying to get back in balance, not having adequate sleep is itself an incredible stressor, and when we are stressed, we don’t sleep well. It’s a cycle, and now is the time to address it. We can’t wait any longer.

What are the range of causes of the “explosion” of mental health crises among adolescents?

For one, we have social brains, yet we are living in a world that is increasingly supportive of disconnection. Unlike many societies where families of origin remain together, the Western world that we have is one where we move a lot. We’re transient. Especially when we go off to college or enter work fulltime at the age of 17 or 18, a pivotal time for mental health. We’re living in a way that our brains aren’t meant to live. We aren’t supposed to be isolated in this way. I am certain that is one reason I began to systematically study the neural correlates of humor in children and adolescents. Laughter is one of the first sounds that ties humans together and doesn’t depend on technology. I am fascinated by any “offline” routes we can take to support and sustain social ties and build our social brains.

Because we’re expected to be online all the time, another factor is our brain doesn’t get the break that it needs. A kid doing homework online, they’ve got 15 windows open, music playing, they’re getting texts, their brain is being inundated, and therefore they need even more sleep. But they’re not getting that. We have more stimulation and less and less time to digest what’s happening. And all this is happening when the brain is under construction, very vulnerable to its environment. In neuroscience, we’re only beginning to realize how vulnerable the brain is right before puberty up until the mid-twenties, but most critically during the teenage years.

What interventions are you developing?

I’m looking at sleep in adolescents who have already been in psychiatric crisis. But also in kids at risk for mental illness based on family history. Studies are now trying to start doing something before we see the symptoms. But we’re still teasing apart what comes first and second in terms of interruptions of sleep. Some investigators in this field say you see instability of sleep first, and then you see the onset of something like schizophrenia. Others say you see symptoms, and then medication makes sleep worse.

I’m also looking at families where one or more children have been identified as having a neurodevelopmental disability. I’m really looking at autism and children with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD). The literature suggests that there’s high parenting stress in these families. But sleep rhythms haven’t been investigated for both the parents and the children. These are families where there is true disruption in the night. How do we provide appropriate psychoeducation for these particular families?

It’s striking that the importance of a third of our lives has only been fully recognized in the past decade.

Exactly. There’s been a movement to delay start times for schools so that adolescents supposedly are getting more sleep. But that means in many districts the elementary-age kids now need to get up earlier, but they need more sleep than adolescents. We’re always trying to move pieces around without looking at the impact. I’m trying to look at the real patterns of the kids, not just from subjective reports, but also objective biomarkers, like how well the kids and parents are sleeping, and then figuring out what’s working within each family.

What’s the benefit of applying neuroscience to social work?

Neuroscience is really an important addition to understanding human development, which is social, psychological, and biological. Neuroscience has contributed really positively to “What do we mean by ‘biology’?” Or the fact that our environment can impact our biology. But it’s just not yet part of the social work curriculum. Part of what I’ve been trying to do at Boston College and at a national level is to make sure our future social workers are competent in understanding the biological well-being of our clients, not just the psychological and social markers of health.

Adolescent development used to be considered stage-like, but neuroscience and social work have in common their recognition that it’s nonlinear. Both disciplines argue that every journey is unique, that any brain or body in the life course can’t be compared to the next one. Even though neuroscientists and social workers have very different thinking, there’s a lot of harmony there.  

But in general, they don’t attend the same conferences and they don’t write in the same journals. These two disciplines have been in such different places that the conversation is really just beginning. My hope is that we’ll also be able to offer students who are training in neuroscience foundations in social work as well. We want to make sure the questions neuroscientists are forming in a lab setting are informed by community need and framed as much as possible through the social work lens of strengths and focus on social justice.