Study Links Maternal Self Perception to Child's Brain Development and Stress Level

First Posted: Aug 10, 2013 04:14 AM EDT

Developments in early childhood have a long-term impact on the quality of life. Earlier studies have revealed an association between socioeconomic factors such as education and parental income and the child's overall health and brain function.

A recent study says that a child's brain development depends on maternal self perception. This research states that a mother's perceived social status predicts the child's brain development as well as stress indicator.

"We know that there are big disparities among people in income and education," said Margaret Sheridan, PhD, of the Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's Hospital, the study's first author. "Our results indicate that a mother's perception of her social status 'lives' biologically in her children.

To prove the hypothesis, Sheridan and the senior investigator Charles Nelson, PhD, Boston Children's Hospital, examined 38 children of ages 8.3-11.8 years. The children were asked to provide their saliva samples that were used to measure the levels of cortisol- an indicator of stress. Apart from this, 19 children underwent functional MRI of brain, focusing on hippocampus- a region in the brain that is responsible for the formation of long term memory and lowering stress responses.

The study also included the mothers who were asked to rate their social standing on a scale of 1-10 comparing themselves with others.

The researchers noticed that children whose mothers claimed to have a low social status were more likely to suffer from increased cortisol levels and less activation in the hippocampus region.

The researchers took into consideration factors like age and gender. They saw that a mother's self-perceived social status was a significant predictor of cortisol levels in the child.  During a learning task, the maternal self-perception predicted the degree of hippocampal activation.

In contrast to this, the maternal education or income relative to size of the family did not predict the cortisol level or activation of the hippocampus region.

"This needs further exploration," says Sheridan. "There may be more than one pathway leading to differences in long-term memory, or there may be an effect of stress on the hippocampus that comes out only in adulthood."

This study was published in the journal Developmental Science

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