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. thai near me


    June 17, 2021 at 22:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. dog boarding near me

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I may come back yet again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide others.


    June 17, 2021 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. hardee's near me

    Itís difficult to find educated people on this topic, but you sound like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 18, 2021 at 00:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. food near me open

    This is a topic that is near to my heart... Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?


    June 18, 2021 at 00:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. guitar center near me


    June 18, 2021 at 00:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. sprouts near me


    June 18, 2021 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. lowes near me


    June 18, 2021 at 01:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. watch repair near me


    June 18, 2021 at 02:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. mechanics near me

    Good information. Lucky me I came across your blog by accident (stumbleupon). I've book marked it for later!


    June 18, 2021 at 04:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. sonic near me

    Everyone loves it when people come together and share opinions. Great site, keep it up!


    June 18, 2021 at 05:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. food banks near me


    June 18, 2021 at 06:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. window tint near me

    Can I simply say what a relief to discover somebody who really understands what they are talking about on the internet. You actually understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people need to look at this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you're not more popular because you definitely have the gift.


    June 18, 2021 at 06:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sprint near me

    Everything is very open with a precise explanation of the challenges. It was definitely informative. Your website is useful. Thank you for sharing!


    June 18, 2021 at 07:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. donuts near me


    June 18, 2021 at 07:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. convenience store near me

    Excellent post. I absolutely appreciate this website. Stick with it!


    June 18, 2021 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. tool rental near me


    June 18, 2021 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Repair Near My Location

    Itís hard to find experienced people on this subject, but you seem like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 18, 2021 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Nearby RV Repairs

    Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article. Many thanks for providing this information.


    June 18, 2021 at 12:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Repair Huntington Beach

    I blog often and I genuinely appreciate your content. The article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to book mark your website and keep checking for new details about once a week. I subscribed to your Feed too.


    June 18, 2021 at 12:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. RV Repair Shops Nearby


    June 18, 2021 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Sprinter Repair Costa Mesa


    June 18, 2021 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. RV Repair Mission Viejo

    Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this content together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    June 18, 2021 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Repair Shops Near My Location


    June 18, 2021 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. kitchen remodeling buena park

    Very nice post. I certainly appreciate this site. Keep it up!


    June 18, 2021 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Camper Repair Near Me


    June 18, 2021 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. RV Repair Shop

    Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful post. Thank you for supplying these details.


    June 18, 2021 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. RV Repairs Nearby


    June 18, 2021 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Camper Repair Shops Near Me

    This excellent website definitely has all of the information and facts I wanted concerning this subject and didnít know who to ask.


    June 18, 2021 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. RV Repair Shop Near My Location


    June 18, 2021 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. barbers near me


    June 18, 2021 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. grocery store near me

    Itís nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people about this topic, however, you sound like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks


    June 18, 2021 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Camper Repair Places Near Me

    After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. Is there a way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!


    June 18, 2021 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. RV Repair California

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you so much, However I am experiencing difficulties with your RSS. I donít know why I can't subscribe to it. Is there anyone else getting the same RSS issues? Anyone who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    June 18, 2021 at 23:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Repair Shops Near My Location


    June 19, 2021 at 00:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Nearby RV Repairs

    After looking over a few of the blog posts on your web page, I seriously appreciate your way of writing a blog. I book-marked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back in the near future. Please visit my website as well and tell me your opinion.


    June 19, 2021 at 00:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Nearby RV Repairs


    June 19, 2021 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. homes for rent near me

    Can I just say what a relief to find somebody who truly knows what they are discussing on the internet. You definitely understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people need to look at this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you aren't more popular since you most certainly possess the gift.


    June 19, 2021 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. yard sales near me


    June 19, 2021 at 01:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. michaels near me


    June 19, 2021 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Camper Repair Near Me


    June 19, 2021 at 03:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. RV Repair California

    Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe this web site needs much more attention. Iíll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!


    June 19, 2021 at 03:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. RV Repair Shop Near Me


    June 19, 2021 at 04:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. RV Repairs Near My Location


    June 19, 2021 at 05:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. RV Repair Orange County

    You should take part in a contest for one of the best websites on the net. I most certainly will recommend this web site!


    June 19, 2021 at 05:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. vach ngan ve sinh

    This piece of writing is truly a good one it helps new the web people, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

    June 19, 2021 at 05:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. florist near me

    I really love your website.. Great colors & theme. Did you create this site yourself? Please reply back as Iím attempting to create my own blog and would like to find out where you got this from or just what the theme is named. Cheers!


    June 19, 2021 at 06:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. massage near me


    June 19, 2021 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Repair Mission Viejo


    June 19, 2021 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. breweries near me


    June 19, 2021 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Repairs Near My Location


    June 19, 2021 at 09:53 | 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 Nearby


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.