Early Life Experiences May be Passed Down to Children

Early Life Experiences May be Passed Down to Children

By Jim Windell

             If you experienced emotional neglect as a child, can this alter your own child’s brain?

            While this seems the stuff of science fiction, there is some evidence that your early life experiences – if you are a mother – can have an effect on both your brain development and neurobiological health as well as the brain and neurobiological health of your children.

            A study that appears in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, suggests that our brains may be affected not only by what happens to us but also what has happened to our parents – even before we were conceived.

            Cassandra Hendrix, Ph.D., leading a research study at Emory University, examined 48 Black mother-infant pairs starting in the first trimester of pregnancy. The mothers in this study were given a questionnaire to assess childhood trauma, including experiences of early abuse or neglect. In addition, these mothers were also evaluated for current, prenatal stress levels, and for anxiety and depression. One month after birth, the infants underwent a brain scan using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, a non-invasive technology that could be used while the babies slept naturally.

           Hendrix, who is in the Department of Psychology at Emory University, and her team of researchers focused on brain connections between the amygdala, which is central to processing fearful emotions, and two other brain regions: the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Both areas play a key role in regulating emotions.

           The results show that infants whose mothers experienced childhood emotional neglect had stronger functional connections between the amygdala and the cortical regions. Furthermore, after controlling for mothers' current stress levels, the researchers found that the more emotional neglect a mother had experienced during her own childhood, the more strongly her baby's amygdala was connected to the frontal cortical regions.

           According to these researchers, the findings suggest that childhood emotional neglect has intergenerational effects on brain structure and function.

           However, Hendrix indicates that the significance of the stronger connection remains unclear. "The neural signature we observed in the one-month-old infants of emotionally neglected mothers may be a mechanism that leads to increased risk for anxiety, or it could be a compensatory mechanism that promotes resilience in case the infant has less supportive caregivers,” Hendrix says. “In either case, emotional neglect from a mother's own childhood seems to leave behind a neural signature in her baby that may predispose the infant to more readily detect threat in the environment almost from birth. Our findings highlight the importance of emotional support early in life, even for subsequent generations."

           While the findings may add to evidence of the intergenerational consequences of early life adversity, such as maternal neglect, future studies are needed. It will be important to learn through additional research whether these changes in brain function have an impact on the social and emotional development of children of mothers who experienced early neglect or other trauma.

           To read the journal article, find it at:

Cassandra L. Hendrix, Daniel D. Dilks, Brooke G. McKenna, Anne L. Dunlop, Elizabeth J. Corwin, & Patricia A. Brennan. Maternal childhood adversity associates with frontoamygdala connectivity in neonates. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.11.003

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