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Early Relationships and Brain Development

Posted by Claudia M Gold  December 23, 2011 11:02 AM

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The research and knowledge about how early relationships shape brain development has been exploding in recent years. Three new studies caught my attention. The more we know about this area, the more we recognize how important it is to support parents and young children in the early years when the brain is most rapidly developing and so most "plastic," or able to change.

The first study, using neuroimaging techniques, showed that children exposed to severe maternal depression since birth had larger amygdalas at age 10. Much research has shown that postpartum depression can have long term impact on child development. In addition we know that the amygdala plays a critical role in emotional regulation. Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk has referred to it as "the smoke alarm of the brain." It makes sense that when mothers, because of their own emotional distress, are not able to be attuned with their babies as the would wish, the centers of the baby's brain responsible for emotional regulation may not develop as well. So the amygdala is, in a sense, unchecked.

The take home message is not that mothers should feel guilty if they are depressed, but that they should get help. I have written in a previous post about the dearth of services for women with PPD and new initiatives to address this problem. I have added my efforts to the cause by starting the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health Program at Newton Wellesley Hospital where mothers struggling with a range of perinatal emotional complications can be seen with their baby.

The second study, is also about the amygdala: Amygdalar Activation and Connectivity in Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Also using neuroimaging, these researchers showed that the amygdala was overactive in a group of teenagers with the diagnosis of ADHD. I have written previously about ADHD as a problem of regulation of emotion, attention and behavior. The authors of the study link this finding to the difficulties with emotional reactivity seen in teenagers with ADHD. If we combine these findings with the previous study, it seems that treating mother-baby pairs in the setting of postpartum depression might in fact prevent ADHD! Such a study, known as an intervention study, is yet to be done, but certainly it seems to make sense to place our efforts in that direction.

The last study comes out of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, which has followed a group of children from birth into adulthood. They showed a link between secure early attachment relationships and satisfying romantic relationships in young adults. The results were affected by quality of social skills in preschool and having a best friend in adolescence. The authors conclude that early relationships are very important, but other relationships along the way to adulthood can influence the effects.

While this study is not about neuroimaging, if we think about how being in a successful romantic relationship as an adult requires a good degree of emotional regulation, we can make a connection. Secure early attachment relationships are characterized by attunement between mother and infant. When something is amiss, as in the case of postpartum depression, these relationships may develop a quality of insecurity. This may show itself in the brain as an overactive amygdala, perhaps with relative underdevelopment of the centers of the brain responsible for regulating the amygdala. These studies together offer insight into how brain development may affect later adult relationships.

These studies span the developmental spectrum, from childhood to adolesence and on to adulthood. With such far reaching implications, it certainly makes sense to put our efforts into helping these young brains to grow in a healthy way from the start.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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