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Maternal Support Linked to Hippocampal Development

dr m david kurland mother and child

A study conducted by child psychiatrists of Washington University suggests that the children who were nurtured by their mothers during their preschool years were prone to stronger brain structure growth.

Joan L. Luby, the first author of the study says that their findings suggest that the human brain has a specific period in its early growth where it responds more readily and positively to the maternal support it receives. This research is part of a larger project that the researches are working towards, and builds on top of their previous study that suggests there was a link between maternal nurturing before school age and a larger hippocampus.

Luby and her fellow researchers analyzed brain scans that were taken of children between preschool age and early adolescence. 127 children were given three different MRI scans that documented their brains between preschool and “early adolescence”. They noticed some distinct differences in the children’s hippocampi.  During this analysis, the researchers were able to see a distinct increase in the hippocampus in children that received nurturing support during their preschool aged years. The children that did not receive as much support, had a much smaller hippocampus. The hippocampi remained small even if their maternal figures increased their amount of support during later developmental years.

Their findings have allowed the researchers to come to a few different conclusions. It has become increasingly clear that maternal nurturing is more important in the early stages of a child’s life than any other time; its effects decrease over time. The hippocampus’s growth is also directly related to the overall health of the child’s emotional function as teenagers. Teenagers that did not experience the early maternal nurturing were at a distinct disadvantage in terms of the benefits of hippocampal growth.

Co-author of the study, Deanna M. Barch, PhD of Washington University, was quoted saying,

“This finding highlights the critical importance of caregiving in sculpting aspects of brain development that are important to how children function as they mature.”

Understandably, what constitutes “nurture” is relative, but the researchers standardized what they counted as nurture by monitoring and observing recorded interactions between the children and the mothers. Nurture and support was based on the mother’s ability to “maintain their composure and complete assigned tasks while still offering emotional support to their children.”

The findings of this study have important implications because they shed light on what can be done to help children perform better in school and develop healthier emotional demeanors in the long term.


The materials sourced for this blog can be found here: Science Daily via Washington University