Parents’ unpredictable behavior can interfere with the formation of optimal circuits in the brain


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Summary: Unpredictable parental behavior and environment disrupts the optimal development of emotional brain circuitry during a child’s development and increases the risk of mental disorders and substance abuse later in life.

Source: UC Irvine

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are conducting groundbreaking research on the concept that unpredictable parental behavior, along with unpredictable environments such as lack of routine and frequent disasters, disrupts the optimal development of emotional brain circuits in children and increases their susceptibility to mental illness and substance abuse.

In an article published online today in Science, dr Tallie Z. Baram, corresponding author and UCI Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Pediatrics, Neurology, and Physiology & Biophysics; and Matthew T. Birnie, first author and UCI postdoctoral researcher, describe animal-derived principles of the formation of emotional circuits in the brain and their implications for children’s cognitive development and mental health.

“This perspective takes the basic principles of how the brain’s sensory – auditory and visual – and motor circuits are constructed and refined, and we apply these to emotional circuits that control reward-, stress- and anxiety-related behaviors.

It is not only positive or negative parental signals, but also the patterns of these behaviors, and particularly their predictability or unpredictability, that are associated with adverse outcomes such as poor emotional control later in life. The latter are indicators of a higher risk of mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse,” Baram said.

The formation of sensory circuits in the brain involves an initial phase of genetically and molecularly controlled actions, including neuronal migration and synapse establishment.

Complex emotional and cognitive human behavior involves many decisions and actions and is also executed by circuits in the brain.

These higher-order circuits include the interactions of the prefrontal cortical areas, the thalamic nuclei, the hippocampus, the amygdala and hypothalamic nuclei, and the subcortical regions of the brain.

They receive numerous streams of information that fuel the activity of the neurons in the circuits. This activity is required for the maturation of the components and refinement of the integrative connections.

In early life, when these emotional circuits are developing, the parents are the immediate primary environment: they are the source of information that influences the child’s brain maturation.

Studies in mice raised by mothers that exhibit unpredictable behavioral sequences (but the same overall amount of nurturing) during the early postnatal period show that maternal behavior affects synaptic connectivity in key brain nodes, including those that contribute to stress.

Research in infants and children suggests that unpredictable maternal behavioral patterns are associated with later deficits in emotional control and behavior.

This shows an abstract visualization of sensory signals
Abstract visualization of unpredictable chaotic patterns of sensory signals from parents and environment. The UCI studies suggest that such patterns are suboptimal for the development of stable and refined connections between brain cells that are required for mental and cognitive health. Credit: School of Medicine/UCI

These effects persist after correcting for other early childhood variables, such as B. Maternal sensitivity to the needs of the child, socioeconomic status and maternal depressive symptoms.

“What’s significant about this research is that it identifies new intervention targets and helps us identify actions we can take to best support the development of mentally and cognitively healthy children,” Baram said.

“Unpredictability is actionable because we can aim to inform and educate parents, caregivers and others about the importance of predictable signals and environments in infant and child brain maturation.”

See also

This shows a happy baby

Baram and her team continue to expand their research at the UCI Conte Center. “We conduct mechanistic studies in experimental rodents and monitor infants, children and adolescents at the center. We are now ready to test our discoveries in large-scale, real-world research,” she said.

About this news from neurodevelopment and neuroscientific behavioral research

Author: press office
Source: UC Irvine
Contact: Press Office – UC Irvine
Picture: Image is credited to the School of Medicine/UCI

Original research: Closed access.
“Principles of Emotional Brain Circuit Maturation” by Tallie Z. Baram et al. Science


Principles of Maturation of Emotional Brain Circuits

The mammalian brain is organized in overlapping, intercalated circuits, and a large body of information focuses on the maturation of sensory (visual, auditory) and motor circuits. Yet much less is known about the maturation principles of “emotional” brain circuits, including those that control reward-, stress-, and anxiety-related behavior.

There is evidence that environmental sensory input during a sensitive period in early postnatal life has important implications for the development of emotional circuits, just as negative or positive images, smells, and sounds influence feelings and actions in adulthood.

Dysfunction of emotional circuits underlies mental illness and substance use disorders. Therefore, an improved appreciation of the principles guiding the development of these circuits is important for understanding human health.

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