The Early Years

The early years of our children’s lives are of great importance in getting them off to a “good start”, whatever that means. Is this just getting them into good habits, socializing them and making sure they're well fed? It turns out that nurture is a lot more than that, but we had a suspicion that it was all along, didn’t we?

Luby et al from Washington U have carried out a study lasting several years of a group of children from their pre-school years up to an age maximum of 13. A total of 92 children were in the study, which is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (1).

Some of these little boys and girls were suffering from depression at the pre-school stage. Two things were under scrutiny. The first was the volume of the hippocampus as measured by MRI and the second was a measure of the maternal support that the children received.

Maternal support was estimated from studying the mother and child when the child was given a wrapped present and had to wait while the mother filled in a questionnaire. This scenario produced mild stress for both mother and child.

The results gave a correlation between hippocampal volume, maternal support and depression severity. Specifically, the largest volume was found with children with high levels of maternal support and low levels of depression. Next came high maternal support and high levels of depression. Lower volumes were found with children who had low levels of depression and also low maternal support. Lowest of all was for highly depressed children with mothers offering low levels of support.

Clearly, nurture is not just keeping them well fed, clothed and behaved, but the cuddles, sympathy and encouragement are crucial. The hippocampus, remember, is associated with both memory tasks and stress responses.

It is interesting to note that this data is new for children, but studies of rodents has shown the same result quite a long time ago.


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