Children whose mothers were nurturing through the preschool years, instead of later in childhood, have significantly more robust growth in brain structures associated with learning, memory and stress response than children with less supportive moms, according to analyze at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“This study suggests there are a sensitive period when the mind responds more to maternal support,” said first author Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
The analysis is published online April 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
The researchers studied some brain scans of children from preschool through early adolescence, getting a sharper rise in the quantity of the hippocampus in the youngsters whose mothers supported and nurtured them through the preschool years. That region of the mind is crucial to learning, memory and regulating emotions. On the other hand, the hippocampus appeared smaller in adolescents whose mothers were less supportive through the preschool period, even if their mothers became more supportive in middle or elementary school.
The brand new research builds on previous findings by the same investigators that showed a connection between maternal nurturing and a more substantial hippocampus seen in brain scans conducted at that time the kids reached school age. Within the new study, the researchers could actually observe steady growth in the hippocampus of children with supportive mothers across multiple brain scans taken at different schedules, with 127 children obtaining three MRI scans each from the time they first started school through early adolescence.
“The parent-child relationship through the preschool period is essential, even more important than when the kid gets older,” Luby said. “We think that’s due to greater plasticity in the mind when kids are younger, and therefore the mind is afflicted more by activities very early in life. That suggests it’s essential that kids receive support and nurturing during those early years.”
The researchers also discovered that the growth trajectory in the hippocampus was associated with healthier emotional functioning when the kids entered their teen years. When parental nurturing didn’t commence until later in childhood, such support didn’t supply the same benefits in brain growth, the researchers noted.
“This finding highlights the critical need for caregiving in sculpting areas of brain development that are essential to how children work as they mature,” said co-author Deanna M. Barch, PhD, a Washington University chair and Psychologist of the Department of Psychological