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Mom's Self Image May Affect Child's Brain Development

Update Date: Aug 09, 2013 12:34 PM EDT

How a mother sees herself may predict her child's brain development and stress levels, according to a new study.

Previous studies have tied objective socioeconomic factors like parental income or education to child health, achievement and brain function. However, the latest study is the first to link brain function to maternal self-perception.

Researchers found that children of mothers who saw themselves as having a low social status were more likely to have higher cortisol levels.  These children also had less activation of their hippocampus, a structure in the brain responsible for longer-term memory formation and reducing stress responses.

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

Researchers studied 38 children aged 8.3 to 11.8 years.  The children gave out saliva samples and underwent fMRI scans.

Researchers also had mothers rate their social standing on a scale of 1 to 10.

The findings reveal that the mother's self perceived social status was a significant predictor of cortisol levels in the child.  Researchers said the latest findings support previous animal studies.

"In animal research, your stress response is related to your relative standing in the hierarchy," Sheridan explained.

Researchers also found that the mother's perceived social status significantly predicted the degree of hippocampal activation in their children during a learning task.

Interestingly, actual maternal education or income-to-needs ratio (income relative to family size) did not significantly predict cortisol levels or hippocampal activation in children.

Researchers said the latest findings suggest that regardless of actual socioeconomic status, how people perceive and adapt to their situation is an important factor in child development.

Researchers note that the current study didn't find evidence that stress itself alters hippocampal function. They found that no link between cortisol and hippocampal function. Researchers said that this may be because only a small number of children in the study underwent brain scans.

"This needs further exploration," said 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."

The findings are published in the journal Developmental Science

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