In a new study, school-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life had a larger hippocampus, the brain structure associated with learning, memory and response to stress. In contrast, the hippocampus was smaller in older children whose mothers were less supportive during the preschool years, even if their mothers became more supportive when the children were older.
The research by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is the first to show that changes in this critical region of children’s brain anatomy are linked to a mother’s nurturing.
“We think it’s due to greater plasticity in the brain when kids are younger, meaning that the brain is affected more by experiences very early in life. That suggests it’s vital that kids receive support and nurturing during those early years,” said Dr. Joan Luby, a Washington University child psychiatrist.
This research builds on previous findings by the same group that showed a link between maternal nurturing and a larger hippocampus in brain scans at the time the children reached school age. In this new study, researchers observed steady growth in the brains of children with supportive mothers in MRIs taken over several years, beginning when they started school and continuing through early adolescence. They will continue following the children as they grow.
Researchers also found that the growth of the hippocampus was associated with healthier emotional functioning when the children entered their teen years. When parental nurturing began later in childhood, such support didn’t provide the same benefits in brain growth.
Dr. Luby says the findings indicate it’s possible to help children do better in school and develop emotionally by helping parents learn to provide more support and nurturing early in their children’s lives.
Although 95% of parents in the study were the children’s biological mothers, the researchers say the effects of nurturing on brain development likely are the same for any primary caregiver.