Childhood neglect affects brain development over generations
Early life experiences can have an outsized effect on brain development and neurobiological health — an effect that can be passed down to subsequent generations, according to researchers from Emory University. Their study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, finds that the infant children of mothers who had experienced childhood emotional neglect displayed altered brain circuitry involved in fear responses and anxiety.
Dr Cassandra Hendrix and her colleagues studied 48 Black mother–infant pairs starting in the first trimester of pregnancy. Mothers were given a questionnaire to assess childhood trauma (experiences of early abuse or neglect). The mothers were also evaluated for current stress levels and for anxiety and depression. One month after birth, infants underwent a brain scan using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, a non-invasive technology that could be used while the babies slept naturally.
The researchers focused on brain connections between the amygdala, which is central to processing fearful emotions, and two other brain regions — the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — both of which play a key role in regulating emotions. Babies whose mothers experienced childhood emotional neglect had stronger functional connections between the amygdala and the cortical regions.
After controlling for the mothers’ current stress levels, the researchers found that the more emotional neglect a mother had experienced during her own childhood, the more strongly her baby’s amygdala was connected to the frontal cortical regions. Physical abuse or neglect of the mother were not correlated with the stronger connectivity. The findings suggest that childhood emotional neglect has intergenerational effects on brain structure and function.
“These results show that our brain development is not only shaped by what happens in our own life, but is also impacted by things that happened to our parents before we were even conceived,” Dr Hendrix said, while acknowledging that the significance of the stronger connection remains unclear.
“The neural signature we observed in the one-month-old infants of emotionally neglected mothers may be a mechanism that leads to increased risk for anxiety, or it could be a compensatory mechanism that promotes resilience in case the infant has less supportive caregivers,” she said.
“In either case, emotional neglect from a mother’s own childhood seems to leave behind a neural signature in her baby that may predispose the infant to more readily detect threat in the environment almost from birth. Our findings highlight the importance of emotional support early in life, even for subsequent generations.”
Dr Cameron Carter, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, said the study findings “add to evidence of the intergenerational consequences of early life adversity, such as maternal neglect”.
“Future studies that follow children longitudinally will help us understand the functional significance of these changes in brain function in terms of the emotional and social development of children of mothers who experienced early neglect,” he said.
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