Lovingly nurturing a child stimulates the growth of the hippocampus, the region of the brain most important for learning. Caring for and giving protection and love to a child at an early age can help him develop a larger hippocampus, the region of the brain important for learning, memory and stress responses, a new study shows.
Previous animal research showed that early maternal support has a positive effect on a young rat’s hippocampal growth, brain cell production, and ability to cope with stress.
Studies in children, by contrast, found a connection between social experiences and amygdala volume, which helps regulate the processing and memory of emotional reactions. Numerous studies have also found that children raised in a nurturing environment tend to do better in school and are more emotionally developed than their uncared for peers.
Brain imaging has revealed that a mother’s love physically affects the volume of her child’s hippocampus. In the study, the children of mothers who are aware of the care of their children, had a volume 10% higher than the children whose mothers were not more aware of their care. Research has suggested a link between a larger hippocampus with better memory.
“We can now confidently say that the psychosocial environment has a material impact on the way the human brain develops, ” said Dr. Joan Luby, principal investigator of the study and a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. ” It puts a very strong wind behind the idea that early care of children positively affects their development .”
The research is part of an ongoing project to follow the development of young children with depression . As part of the project, Luby and her colleagues previously measured the maternal support that children – ages 3 to 6, and who had either symptoms of depression, other psychiatric disorders, or no mental health problems – received during the so-called “homework task. Standby.”
The researchers placed the 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 that they couldn’t open the gift until it was basically five minutes after their mothers had finished the survey. A group of psychiatrists, who knew nothing about children’s health or fathers’ temperaments, rated the amount of support mothers gave their children.
A very supportive mother, for example, comforted her son, explaining to the child that he had only a few more minutes to wait and that she understood that the situation was frustrating. “Homework recaps what it’s like in everyday life,” Luby told LiveScience, which means it gives researchers an idea of how much support the child receives at home.
Now, four years later, the researchers did an MRI on 92 children who underwent the waiting task. Compared to non-depressed children with maternal support, non-depressed children with lower maternal support had 9.2 percent lower hippocampal volume, while depressed children with low and high support had 6.0 and 10.6 percent smaller volume, respectively.
Although 95% of the fathers in the study were biological mothers of the children, the researchers say that the effects of parenting on the brain are likely to be the same for any primary caregiver.
Luby and her team will continue to follow the children as they grow, and they plan to see how other regions of the brain are affected by parenting during the preschool years.
” It is now clear that the quality of nurturing that a parent gives a child is not only good for their development, but actually physically changes the brain ,” Luby said.