WU study finds nurtured children have greater brain development

| Contributing Reporter

A recent study at the Early Emotional Development Program of the Washington University School of Medicine has shown that early emotional support and nurturing helps increase the rate of brain development in young children.

The study, approved last month and then published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” was a longitudinal study that looked at how children interacted with their parents after a stress, and how that affected their brain development.

“It is the first study of its kind on humans that shows a link between early nurturing and hippocampal volume,” said Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program. “The study will increase awareness of the necessity of early parenting.”

The study included 92 children between the ages of 3 and 6 from preschools in the St. Louis metropolitan area, of whom 51 were healthy and 41 had early-onset depression. The children were observed interacting with their mothers and called back several years later to have an MRI that measured the size of each child’s hippocampus region.

Each child was observed interacting with his or her mother in a situation that simulated an occurrence in everyday parenting. The situation was meant to be somewhat stressful, forcing an interaction between the mother and child where the mother needed to be supportive.

One of the scenarios was having an attractive gift placed in front of the child. The child was not allowed to open it for a period of seven minutes, and the mother was to help the child deal with the frustration of not being able to open it. The researchers then observed the mothers’ actions and their effect on the child.

Those children whose parents were observed to do a better job of nurturing them were found to have larger hippocampus regions at age 7-10.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays an important part in the formation of memory from experienced events. The increase in hippocampal volume was seen mainly in children who did not suffer from early-onset depression, and were more receptive to their mothers’ care.

The researchers were blind to whether the child was depressed or not. They focused purely on the interaction and rated how nurturing the mother was. Their being blind to the child’s psychological well-being was another form of control in the statistical analysis, eliminating possible bias the scientists may have against a child diagnosed as depressed.

Researchers also put controls on the children’s ages, socioeconomic statuses, past experiences, and dominant hand—all students involved were non-left-hand-dominant. They hoped to see the effect nurturing had on brain development without it being attributed to any other factors.

Since the children are still young, the researchers were not yet able to determine the long-term benefits of having a larger hippocampus. For now, Luby said, the study is simply solid evidence that there is a correlation between early childhood nurturing and brain formation.

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