Love key to brain development in children
March 12th, 2012
11:51 AM ET

Love key to brain development in children

Editor's note: Dr. Charles Raison, CNNhealth's mental health expert, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Ever noticed how scientific opinions swing from one extreme to the other?

Take the importance of mothers in the development of children. In the early days of psychiatry almost every mental illness, from depression to schizophrenia to autism was blamed on bad mothering. Then in the 1960’s and 70’s the discovery of medications that helped these illnesses allowed psychiatry to reframe them as biological conditions, no different from cancer or heart disease. Parents were fully absolved for the mental illnesses of their children, except to the degree that they passed along bad genes that caused chemical imbalances in the brain.

Myths inevitably survive long after they’ve been scientifically disproven. Such is the case with the fantasy that mental illnesses can be written off solely to genes and chemicals. Over the last decade a string of scientific discoveries has shown that the biology driving mental illness has at least as much to do with the environment as with chemicals or genetic inheritance. And it increasingly appears that the single most powerful environmental factor is the love - or its lack - that children receive from their parents. So in a very real way we parents are back on the hook for the lifelong emotional well-being of our kids.

I say this based on a thousand studies. But to make the point here, let me describe a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that more definitively than any before it shows how parental care literally changes not just kids’ hearts and minds, but their brains as well.

Here’s how the study was done. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis recruited 92 children between the ages of 3 and 6. Rather than asking parents about how they treated their children, the researchers brought the kids and parents into a lab and videotaped them as the parents, almost always mothers, tried to help their children cope with a mildly stressful task that was designed to approximate the stress of daily parenting.

Ratings of parental ability to nurture their children were done by study personnel who watched the videos while knowing nothing about either children or parents. Several years later, on average, the children had the size of a brain area called the hippocampus measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). After taking into account a whole range of factors that can affect hippocampal size, the researchers found that children with especially nurturing, caring mothers, based on their behavior during the laboratory stressor, had significantly larger hippocampi (plural of hippocampus - you’ve got one on each side of the brain) than kids with mothers who were average or poor nurturers.

Why is this finding important? Because more than any place else in the brain, when it comes to the hippocampus, size matters. Other things being equal, having small hippocampi increases your risk for all sorts of troubles, from depression and post traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease.  If you’ve got depression, having small hippocampi predicts that you won’t respond as well to antidepressants as well as depressed people with larger hippocampi.

Just as having small hippocampi increases the risk for all sorts of mental disorders, all the things in our lives that put us under undue stress and strain also shrink the hippocampus. This is as true for cigarette smoking as it is for being exposed as a child to abuse or parental neglect.

In addition to protecting us against brain illnesses, we all need big hippocampi because this brain area, while not much bigger than your little finger, plays a disproportionately  large role in how you will be able to handle the stresses and strains of your life, and how you will remember your life when it’s all said and done. This is so because the hippocampus is crucial for our ability to form and store personal memories. It is also of central importance for restraining the body’s stress and inflammatory responses, both of which can induce significant damage to bodily organs and the brain if not properly reined in.

The finding that especially nurturing mothers can literally grow their children’s hippocampi doesn’t exist in isolation. It is consistent with hundreds of animal studies showing that maternal nurturing has a range of biological effects relevant to physical and emotional health. An especially striking example of this is a study done several years ago in rodents showing that maternal nurturance (measured as amount of licking that rat pups received from their mothers) literally changed how the rat pups’ DNA was expressed in the hippocampus. As a result of these changes, pups who received extra licking had changes in their stress systems that have been repeatedly associated with well-being in humans.

So we underestimate our power as parents at our children’s peril. But I would be remiss if I left you with the impression that mother love is all-powerful or that genes and chemicals don’t matter at all. The association of parental nurturing with subsequent hippocampal size in children was only observed in non-depressed children. In children with signs of significant early depression, maternal nurturing in the laboratory had no association with subsequent hippocampal volume. Why this was the case is anybody’s guess, but it might suggest that at least some cases of major depression are indeed mostly genetic or “hardwired” from an early age, and so are fairly resistant to positive things from the environment.

Given the complexity of the human brain, should we be surprised that every possible outcome of genes, chemicals and environment is actualized in someone somewhere? Meantime, one generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world.

soundoff (1,587 Responses)
  1. Box Truck Collision Repair


    May 29, 2021 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Social Media Marketing Services

    Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Taking the time and actual effort to produce a superb articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I put things off a lot and never manage to get nearly anything done.


    May 30, 2021 at 01:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Rv Wrap Shop Near Me

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day. It's always exciting to read articles from other writers and practice something from other websites.


    May 30, 2021 at 01:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Airport Van Repair Shop Near Me


    May 30, 2021 at 01:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mack Truck Repair Repair

    Spot on with this write-up, I really believe that this amazing site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!


    May 30, 2021 at 04:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Content Marketing Agency Near Me


    May 30, 2021 at 05:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Social Media Marketing Firm


    May 30, 2021 at 06:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Nickolas Vanhampler

    Have you ever heard of second life (sl for short). It is essentially a video game where you can do anything you want. SL is literally my second life (pun intended lol). If you would like to see more you can see these sl articles and blogs


    May 30, 2021 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. SEO Marketing Company

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Well written!


    May 30, 2021 at 17:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mercedes Cargo Van Repair

    You need to take part in a contest for one of the greatest blogs online. I most certainly will recommend this web site!


    May 30, 2021 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Starry Night Neck Lanyards keychains (2 Packs) Van Gogh

    Hi! This post could not be written any better!

    Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post
    to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

    May 31, 2021 at 00:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mercedes Sprinter Van Abs Repair


    May 31, 2021 at 01:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Collision Repair Near Me


    May 31, 2021 at 02:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Extended Van Repair Shop Near Me

    Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article! It is the little changes which will make the most significant changes. Thanks for sharing!


    May 31, 2021 at 02:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sprinter Van Collision Repair Shop Near Me


    May 31, 2021 at 03:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Rv Body


    May 31, 2021 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Mercedes Luxury Van Repair

    Good post. I will be dealing with some of these issues as well..


    May 31, 2021 at 04:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. RV Repair Near My Location


    May 31, 2021 at 04:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Sprinter Van Upholstery Shop Near Me

    Hi, I do believe this is a great website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will come back once again since i have book-marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    May 31, 2021 at 05:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Technician Shop Near Me

    Hello there! This article could not be written much better! Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I'll forward this information to him. Fairly certain he's going to have a great read. Thanks for sharing!


    May 31, 2021 at 06:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Alicia Tousley

    Have you ever heard of second life (sl for short). It is essentially a game where you can do anything you want. sl is literally my second life (pun intended lol). If you want to see more you can see these sl websites and blogs


    May 31, 2021 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Service Van Repair Shop


    May 31, 2021 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Air Conditioning Repair Near Me

    After looking over a number of the articles on your web page, I truly appreciate your technique of writing a blog. I saved as a favorite it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my web site as well and let me know your opinion.


    May 31, 2021 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. RV Engine Repair Near Me


    May 31, 2021 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Leisure Travel Van Repair Shop

    Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to create a good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.


    May 31, 2021 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Sprinter Return Line Repair

    I used to be able to find good info from your blog posts.


    May 31, 2021 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Sprinter Van Upholstery


    May 31, 2021 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Van Upgrades Shop Near Me


    May 31, 2021 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Utility Van Repair Shop Near Me

    When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove me from that service? Cheers!


    May 31, 2021 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Gmc High Top Van Repair Shop

    Hey there! I just want to offer you a big thumbs up for your great information you have here on this post. I am coming back to your website for more soon.


    May 31, 2021 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Collision Repair Shop Near Me

    Having read this I thought it was very enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!


    May 31, 2021 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Salvatore Ibach

    This was awesome! I would like you to clean up all this spam though


    June 1, 2021 at 00:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Rv Mercedes Sprinter Service Center Near Me

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not fail me as much as this particular one. I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read through, nonetheless I truly believed you'd have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you can fix if you weren't too busy seeking attention.


    June 1, 2021 at 00:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Rv Mechanic

    I was able to find good info from your blog articles.


    June 1, 2021 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Municipal Vehicle Repair Shop


    June 1, 2021 at 01:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Van Paint


    June 1, 2021 at 03:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Rv Dent Repair Shop

    This site was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me. Thanks!


    June 1, 2021 at 04:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Mecedes Sprinter Repair

    Wonderful post! We will be linking to this great post on our website. Keep up the great writing.


    June 1, 2021 at 05:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. 2006 Dodge Sprinter 2500 Heater Control Repair

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Many thanks for supplying these details.


    June 1, 2021 at 05:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. 2011 Mercedes Sprinter Rv Repair

    After I originally commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. There has to be a means you can remove me from that service? Thanks!


    June 1, 2021 at 06:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Service A Mercedes Sprinter

    Everything is very open with a very clear description of the issues. It was really informative. Your website is very helpful. Thank you for sharing!


    June 1, 2021 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. dump truck paint schemes


    June 1, 2021 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Extended Van Repair Shop Near Me


    June 1, 2021 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. rv solar installation near me

    Your style is unique in comparison to other people I've read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this blog.


    June 1, 2021 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. rv restoration

    Can I simply say what a comfort to discover a person that actually understands what they're talking about on the internet. You definitely realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people ought to look at this and understand this side of your story. I can't believe you are not more popular given that you certainly have the gift.


    June 1, 2021 at 13:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. toilet repair near me

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to return yet again since i have bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    June 1, 2021 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. camper trailer repair near me

    I really love your site.. Excellent colors & theme. Did you create this site yourself? Please reply back as I’m planning to create my own personal blog and would like to know where you got this from or exactly what the theme is named. Many thanks!


    June 1, 2021 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. indoor rv storage orange county

    Having read this I believed it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!


    June 1, 2021 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Carolann Bertha

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this post plus the rest of the site is very good.


    June 1, 2021 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. orange coast trailer supply

    Hi, I do believe your website could possibly be having internet browser compatibility problems. Whenever I take a look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it's got some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Other than that, wonderful blog!


    June 1, 2021 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Leave a Reply to RV Repair Services Near Me


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.