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Maternal Care Linked to Stress Vulnerability

Update Date: Dec 12, 2013 01:02 PM EST

Maternal care may influence how children deal with stress. New research reveals that intense maternal care during the early postnatal period can reduce vulnerability to stress events in adulthood.

The latest findings, which show that maternal care can chemically modify and re-program genes that control stress responses, have important implications for understanding how early environment affects stress-related disorders.

Researchers explain the quality of maternal care and sensory input from the mother in early life can determine resilience to mental and cognitive problems later in life.

Researchers looked at how maternal care influences stress systems in the brain by studying rats.

Rat pups were separated from their mothers for a short time every day for a week. Researchers explain that this brief separation led to intense maternal care when the pups and mothers were reunited.

The findings revealed that enhanced quality of maternal care experienced by the pups reduced the excitability of stress neurons in their brains. The effect was also linked to reduced activity of stress-associated genes in these neurons, which altered activity in a protein that regulates genes expression in the brain.

"The findings show a direct causal effect of sensory input from the mother on the function of stress handling throughout life, and pinpoint the molecular changes involved. They also show plasticity of the wiring of the infant brain," lead researcher Tallie Z. Baram from the University of California at Irvine said in a news release.

"If we figure out exactly how cells regulate their stress molecules, we can modify and improve the function of the stress system in individuals who have not benefited from optimal early life environment, and perhaps prevent vulnerability to stress-related mental and cognitive problems," Baram added.

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