Early nurturing fosters healthy brain development

February 9, 2012

Child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University found that children who are nurtured and shown love and affection from the earliest days of their lives have brains with a larger hippocampus, the key part of the brain involved with memory, stress response, and learning. Find out more about how this study and its provocative findings add to previous studies of nurturing.

A new study provides another reason why parents’ nurturing skills are crucial for children’s social and emotional development. Child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University found that children who are nurtured and shown love and affection from the earliest days of their lives have brains with a larger hippocampus, the key part of the brain involved with memory, stress response, and learning.

In a previous study of preschool depression, researchers had observed children aged 3 to 6 years interacting with a parent, almost always a mother, in a mildly stressful situation designed to approximate the stresses of daily parenting. Ninety-two children from that study aged 7 to 13 years who were classified as depressed or mentally healthy then underwent brain imaging.

Magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the children who had not shown symptoms of depression and had been nurtured earlier in life possessed a hippocampus nearly 10% larger than children whose mothers had not acted as nurturing in the first study. This effect remained robust even after controlling for other factors known to affect hippocampal volume.

The researchers say their study, the first to show an anatomical change in the brain, is consistent with other studies and validates what seems to be intuitive-the importance of nurturing parents in creating adaptive human beings. They say that the findings apply to any primary caregiver and that efforts should be made to foster caregivers’ nurturing skills.

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