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. fry's near me

    Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful post. Many thanks for providing these details.


    June 21, 2021 at 00:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. voting near me


    June 21, 2021 at 00:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. dog shelters near me

    I used to be able to find good info from your content.


    June 21, 2021 at 01:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. casino royal dot kich

    Thông Tin, Sự Kiện Liên Quan Lại Đến Thẳng Bóng Đá Phái Nữ betĐội tuyển nước ta chỉ cần một kết quả hòa có bàn thắng nhằm lần thứ hai góp mặt trên World Cup futsal. Nhưng, nhằm làm được điều này


    June 21, 2021 at 02:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. food pantry near me

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you for providing this information.


    June 21, 2021 at 02:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. chick-fil-a near me

    Hello! I simply would like to give you a big thumbs up for your great information you've got here on this post. I am coming back to your blog for more soon.


    June 21, 2021 at 02:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. towing near me

    I need to to thank you for this good read!! I definitely loved every bit of it. I have you book marked to check out new things you postÖ


    June 21, 2021 at 03:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. corona testing near me

    Iím impressed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog thatís both educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you've hit the nail on the head. The problem is something too few men and women are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy that I came across this during my search for something regarding this.


    June 21, 2021 at 03:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. animal shelters near me

    That is a great tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate informationÖ Thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!


    June 21, 2021 at 03:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. gravel near me


    June 21, 2021 at 04:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. RV Repair Garden Grove

    I blog frequently and I genuinely thank you for your content. The article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your website and keep checking for new information about once a week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.


    June 21, 2021 at 04:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sprinter Repair Near Me

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who has been doing a little homework on this. And he actually ordered me breakfast due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this topic here on your site.


    June 21, 2021 at 06:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Camper Repair Shop Near Me

    May I just say what a relief to find an individual who genuinely understands what they are talking about over the internet. You actually realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people should read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you aren't more popular given that you definitely have the gift.


    June 21, 2021 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. cvs pharmacy near me

    Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful post. Thanks for providing this info.


    June 21, 2021 at 07:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. hn24h

    Kết Trái Futsal Việt Nam Vs Lebanonxem vtv3 hd trực tuyến nhanh nhấtTheo thể thức thi đấu, đội thắng ở cặp đấu này sẽ giành tấm vé đến Lithuania vào ngày hội bóng đá lớn nhất thế giới mang đến futsal. Tuyển futsal Việt Nam bước vào trận play-off lượt đi tranh vé dự play-off World Cup 2021 với sự tự tin. Tuy vậy, HLV Phạm Minh Giang bày tỏ, toàn đội ko ngán Lebanon song sẽ tìm cách để khắc chế sức mạnh của đối thủ bởi trên băng ghế huấn luyện là nhà cầm quân Ramiro Lopez, người từng dẫn dắt futsal Tây Ban Nha.|Dựa vào lịch tranh tài, bạn hoàn toàn có thể sắp xếp việc làm


    June 21, 2021 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sprinter Repair Shop Near Me

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It's always exciting to read through content from other writers and use a little something from their web sites.


    June 21, 2021 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Water Repair Man Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rv Windshield Replacement Shop


    June 21, 2021 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Airport Van Repair Shop Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Frame Repair


    June 21, 2021 at 15:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Rv Upgrades Shop Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. RV Roof Repair Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Repair Parts Near Me

    You've made some decent points there. I looked on the internet for more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.


    June 21, 2021 at 17:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Travel Van Repair Shop Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. motel near me


    June 21, 2021 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Cargo Van Conversion Shop

    Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    June 21, 2021 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Luxury Van Repair Shop Near Me

    Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this information together. I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!


    June 21, 2021 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Commercial Van Repair Shop

    I was able to find good info from your content.


    June 21, 2021 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Art Van Repair

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been doing a little homework on this. And he actually bought me dinner simply because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this matter here on your blog.


    June 21, 2021 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. RV Repair Near Me

    You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the highest quality blogs on the web. I am going to highly recommend this website!


    June 21, 2021 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. RV Repair Seal Beach


    June 21, 2021 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Rv Mechanic Shop Near Me

    Can I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody who genuinely understands what they're talking about on the net. You definitely understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you aren't more popular because you definitely possess the gift.


    June 21, 2021 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. hardware near me


    June 21, 2021 at 23:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. salvation army near me


    June 22, 2021 at 00:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Sprinter Van Frame Repair Shop

    bookmarked!!, I love your website!


    June 22, 2021 at 00:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. accountability membership

    Iím amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog thatís equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I came across this in my hunt for something concerning this.


    June 22, 2021 at 02:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. pharmacepticacom

    best erectile dysfunction remedies https://www.pharmaceptica.com/

    June 22, 2021 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. goal coach

    Very good blog post. I definitely appreciate this site. Stick with it!


    June 22, 2021 at 03:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. lich da banh asian cup 2019

    Liên Kết Coi Thẳng Soccer Futsal Việt Nam Vs Lebanon Vòng Chủng Loại World Cupkq wc 2018Xem bóng đá trực tuyến Trực tiếp Odd BK vs Sarpsborg, 20h ngày 24/5, giải VĐQG Na Uy. Xem lịch vạc sóng thẳng bóng đá EURO ngày hôm nay được Webthethao update chính xác nhất.


    June 22, 2021 at 05:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. RV Repair And Service Near Me

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. There's no doubt that that you need to write more about this subject, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people don't discuss such issues. To the next! Many thanks!!


    June 22, 2021 at 05:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Gmc Cargo Van Repair Shop


    June 22, 2021 at 07:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. accountability coach near me


    June 22, 2021 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. meditation training near me

    I blog often and I really thank you for your content. This great article has really peaked my interest. I'm going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new information about once per week. I opted in for your Feed as well.


    June 22, 2021 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Sprinter Repair Orange County

    I used to be able to find good advice from your content.


    June 22, 2021 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Mercedes Sprinter Maintenance Service Near Me

    Great info. Lucky me I ran across your website by chance (stumbleupon). I have saved as a favorite for later!


    June 22, 2021 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Repair Service Near Me


    June 22, 2021 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. RV Repair Center Near Me

    Excellent post. I definitely love this website. Continue the good work!


    June 22, 2021 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Digital Marketing Specialist


    June 22, 2021 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. tony schiavone podcast


    June 22, 2021 at 22:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. rise podcast

    I could not resist commenting. Very well written!


    June 22, 2021 at 22:58 | 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 Phil Dotson


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.