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Mother’s Love Changes a Child’s Brain

It’s not like we didn’t know, but it always helps when research provides medical evidence for what we thought all along.

Investigators at Washington University in St. Louis studied brain images of children who participated in a project focused on early onset depression in young children. As part of the project, Dr. Joan Luby and her colleagues measured the maternal support that children — who were ages 3 to 6 and had either symptoms of depression, other psychiatric disorders or no mental health problems — were given during a task.

The researchers placed mother and child in a room along with an attractively wrapped gift and a survey that the mother had to fill out. The children were told they could not open the present until five minutes had passed — basically until their mothers had finished the survey. Psychiatrists rated the amount of support the mothers gave to their children.

For example, a mother who was very supportive might console her child, explaining that the child had only a few more minutes to wait and that she understands the situation was frustrating. The task gave researchers an idea of how much support the child was typically receiving at home.

Four years later the researchers gave MRI brain scans to 92 children who underwent the waiting task. Compared with children with high maternal support, children with low support had smaller hippocampal regions, the part of the brain known to be important for learning, memory and stress responses. Results were consistent for children with symptoms of mental health problems and those without.

Though most of the parents in the study were biological mothers, the researchers say that the effects of nurturing on the brain are likely to be the same for any primary caregiver.

“It’s now clear that a caregiver’s nurturing is not only good for the development of the child, but it actually physically changes the brain,” Luby said. She and her team will continue following the children as they grow older, and plan to see how other brain regions are affected by parental nurturing during preschool years.

Take home message for Mamas looking to maximize smarts: love on ’em lots and lots. More nurturing = smarter, happier kids!

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