Nurturing and Love Expand Hippocampus

A larger hippocampus area of the brain, the structure important for memory, learning and stress response, has been found in school-age children who received a great deal of love and nurturing early in life. Studies show that this could make a strong case that nurturing and love are good methods for memory improvement.

Neuroscientists and child psychiatrists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published their research online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition to support this information. It is the first study that has been able to show that a mother’s nurturing can produce these kinds of changes in this critical region of children’s brain structure.

“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” says lead author Joan L. Luby, MD, professor of child psychiatry. “I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”

Ninety-two children aged 7 to 10, who had taken part in a previous study on depression, participated in this brain-imaging study. At that time the children had either exhibited signs of depression or other psychiatric disorders, or were in the control group who were mentally healthy.

As part of the initial study, when the same children were between 3 and 6, the children were closely observed and videotaped interacting with a parent, almost always a mother. The parent was to complete an assigned task while the child was to sit patiently and wait to open a pretty package until the parent was done. This was a stressful situation for the child, as few young children can quietly sit by when their curiosity was peaked. The experiment was designed to simulate daily stresses in parenting, and the parents and the child were both observed for reactions, support and interaction. Those doing the evaluations did not have access to any information about the parent or the child’s health or temperament.

“It’s very objective,” Luby says. “Whether a parent was considered a nurturer was not based on that parent’s own self-assessment. Rather, it was based on their behavior and the extent to which they nurtured their child under these challenging conditions.”

Even though the study was not conducted in the actual home, similar methods have been used as valid measurements for normal stress exercises and the degree as to how much a parent nurtured a child when they interacted.

Researchers found that imaging revealed the healthy children who have been nurtured had a 10% larger hippocampus than children whose mothers were not as nurturing.

“For years studies have underscored the importance of an early, nurturing environment for good, healthy outcomes for children,” Luby says. “But most of those studies have looked at psychosocial factors or school performance. This study, to my knowledge, is the first that actually shows an anatomical change in the brain, which really provides validation for the very large body of early childhood development literature that had been highlighting the importance of early parenting and nurturing. Having a hippocampus that’s almost 10 percent larger just provides concrete evidence of the powerful effect of nurturing.”

Luby reveals they were not surprised that the children who were depressed had smaller hippocampus volume. A similar finding was discovered in adults with depression.   What was surprising was the big difference nurturing played in mentally healthy children.

“We found a very strong relationship between maternal nurturing and the size of the hippocampus in the healthy children,” she says. “The fact that the researchers found a larger hippocampus in the healthy children who were nurtured is striking,” Luby says, “because the hippocampus is such an important brain structure.”

The brain activates an autonomic nervous system when it encounters stress by releasing stress hormones. The heart rate increases to accommodate the stress and allows the body to adapt. The hippocampus is essentially involved in that response, and is the key in learning and memory. A larger hippocampus volume would indicate potential for improved performance and enhanced learning in many areas of life.

Until now, there has not been solid evidence linking a nurturing parent to changes in brain anatomy in children. Up until now animal studies have shown nurturing can influence brain development but not biological changes, like the volume of the hippocampus.

“Studies in rats have shown that maternal nurturance, specifically in the form of licking, produces changes in genes that then produce changes in receptors that increase the size of the hippocampus,” Luby says. “That phenomenon has been replicated in primates, but it hasn’t really been clear whether the same thing happens in humans. Our study suggests a clear link between nurturing and the size of the hippocampus.”

 Memory Training

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time USA Memory Champion and memory expert. As a memory speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.


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