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Moms, put down that cell phone

March 13, 2018 | UCI Health
mother snuggling her toddler

Are you glued to your smartphone when you’re spending time with your baby? If so, it’s time to stop.

UC Irvine researchers have found that fragmented and chaotic maternal care can disrupt proper brain development in infants, which can lead to emotional disorders later in life.

Interruptions have an impact

While the study was conducted with rodents, its findings imply that when mothers are nurturing their infants, numerous everyday interruptions — even those as seemingly harmless as phone calls and text messages — have a disruptive and potentially long-lasting impact.

The study, conducted by child neurologist Dr. Tallie Z. Baram and her colleagues at the UC Irvine Conte Center on Brain Programming in Adolescent Vulnerabilities found that consistency is crucial for developing brains, which depend on predictable and continuous stimuli for neuron networks to grow and strengthen.

Adult problems can develop

The researchers found that erratic care in early stages of development can increase the likelihood of risky behaviors, drug seeking and depression in adolescence and adulthood.

“It is known that vulnerability to emotional disorders, such as depression, derives from interactions between our genes and the environment, especially during sensitive developmental periods,” says Baram, the Danette Shepard Chair of Neurological Sciences and director of the Conte center.

Consistency over quantity and quality

“Our work builds on many studies showing that maternal care is important for future emotional health,” Baram says.

“Importantly, it shows that it is not how much maternal care that influences adolescent behavior but the avoidance of fragmented and unpredictable care that is crucial. We might wish to turn off the mobile phone when caring for baby and be predictable and consistent.”

The study explored the emotional outcomes of adolescent rats reared in either calm or chaotic environments and used mathematical approaches to analyze the mothers’ nurturing behaviors.

Despite the fact that quantity and typical qualities of maternal care were indistinguishable in the two environments, the patterns and rhythms of care differed drastically, which strongly influenced how the rodent pups developed.

Erratic care increases risk of depression

Specifically, in one environment, the mothers displayed “chopped up” and unpredictable behaviors.

During adolescence, their offspring exhibited little interest in sweet foods or peer play, two independent measures of the ability to experience pleasure.

Known as anhedonia, the inability to feel happy is often a harbinger of later depression. In humans, it may also drive adolescents to seek pleasure from more extreme stimulation, such as risky driving, alcohol or drugs.

How maternal care impacts feelings of pleasure

Why might disjointed maternal care generate this problem with the pleasure system?

Baram said the brain’s dopamine-receptor pleasure circuits are not mature in newborns and infants and that these circuits are stimulated by predictable sequences of events, which seem to be critical for their maturation.

If infants are not sufficiently exposed to such reliable patterns, their pleasure systems do not mature properly, provoking anhedonia.

Mothers and infants being studied now

Baram and her team are now studying human mothers and their infants using:

  • Video analysis of care
  • Sophisticated imaging technology to measure brain development
  • Psychological and cognitive testing

The goal is to see whether discoveries in rodents can be applied to humans. If so, strategies to limit chopped-up and unpredictable patterns of maternal care may prove helpful in preventing emotional problems in teenagers.

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