Based on a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was found that school-age children had a larger hippocampus - that component of the brain responsible for memory, learning and response to stress - whose mothers nurtured them early in life, than those who had less nurturing mothers.
The researchers, child psychiatrists and neuroscientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis conducted brain scans on a group of 92 mentally-healthy kids and also those who had shown symptoms of depression during their preschool years.
These children were videotaped as they were told that they could open a beautifully wrapped gift, but only until their parent finished completing a task. The idea was to create a mildly stressful situation and to observe how the parents – in this case, the mothers – would deal with their children as they waited.
Supportive moms would console their children by reassuring them that after a few minutes they would be finished and the gift could already be unwrapped. Says Dr. Joan Luby, lead researcher, “The task recapitulates what everyday life is like.”
Luby adds, “We can now say with confidence that the psychosocial environment has a material impact on the way the human brain develops. It puts a very strong wind behind the sail of the idea that early nurturing of children positively affects their development."
The researchers note that the results would also likely be the same, regardless if the primary caregiver doing the nurturing is the mother, father, or caregiver.
Because the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory, scientists believe its size and development is also highly associated with better performance in school. Luby notes, “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 (also).”
• January 31, 2012. “Mother’s Nurturing Results in Larger Hippocampus in Children” scitechdaily.com
• February 1, 2012. Maia Szalavitz and Bonnie Rochman. “Nurturing Moms May Boost Children’s Brain Growth” healthland.time.com
• February 1, 2012. “Mum’s love can boost kid’s brain development” mid-day.com
Photography by Josh Liba via flickr creative commons