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Gray Matter: Parental Absence Hurts The Developing Brain

First Posted: Nov 30, 2015 05:39 PM EST
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Children who were left without parental care for extended periods show larger gray matter volumes in their brain, according to a recent study.

Researchers found that growing up around other relatives instead of ones parents may delay brain development.

"We wanted to study the brain structure in these left-behind children," said study author Yuan Xiao, Ph.D. candidate at the Huaxi MR Research Center and the Department of Radiology at West China Hospital of Sichuan University in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, in a news release. "Previous studies support the hypothesis that parental care can directly affect brain development in offspring. However, most prior work is with rather severe social deprivation, such as orphans. We looked at children who were left behind with relatives when the parents left to seek employment far from home."

During the study, researchers compared children who grew up around their parents to those in China who migrated away in search of better jobs and were around other relatives for extended periods, in their absence. They examined the MRIs of 38 left-behind girls and boys between the ages of 7 and 13 and compared them to 30 girls and boys living with their parents. Then, the researchers compared the gray matter volume between the two groups and measured the intelligence quotient (IQ) of each participant to assess cognitive function.

The findings revealed larger gray matter volumes in multiple brain regions--particularly in the emotional brain circuitry of the left-behind children when compared to those who live with their parents. The mean value of IQ scores in left-behind children was not significantly different from that of controls, but the gray matter volume in a brain region associated with memory encoding and retrieval was negatively correlated with IQ score.

Since larger gray matter volume may reflect insufficient pruning and maturity of the brain, the negative correlation between the gray matter volume and IQ scores suggests that growing without parental care may delay brain development.

The study was presented at the Radiological Society of North America. 

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