The emotional trauma a mother experiences in their childhood can impact the brain development of their children, according to new research.
It is well established that psychological distress during childhood can lead to changes in brain development and behaviour in adulthood.
What is not so well understood is whether these effects can be passed down through generations.
Reported in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, a new study investigated whether a mother's psychological distress could lead to changes in their children, specifically with regards to brain development.
Researchers asked 48 expectant mothers in their first trimester of pregnancy to complete a questionnaire about any trauma they had experienced as a child.
One month after birth, newborns were given a brain scan to search for any "neural signatures" that suggested that the mother's trauma had impacted the child's development.
Specifically, the researchers looked for any connections between the amygdala and two areas responsible for regulating emotions.
The amygdala is a part of the brain that processes emotions and has long been known to have a central role in generating the physical effects often associated with anxiety.
The team found that the babies of mothers who had experienced emotional distress during childhood tended to have a stronger link between the amygdala and the two regulatory areas of the brain.
In addition, this link was stronger in babies of mothers who had experienced more emotional neglect during childhood, compared with mothers who had experienced emotional neglect to a lesser degree.
Physical neglect and abuse were not linked to any significant changes in brain development.
"These results show that our brain development is not only shaped by what happens in our own life, but is also impacted by things that happened to our parents before we were even conceived," said lead author of the study, Cassandra Hendrix.
The findings seem to suggest that childhood emotional neglect could impact future generations, and in doing so, may mean that mental health issues such as anxiety could be passed from mother to child.
Although this is one interpretation of the findings, Hendrix says that what the actual relationship they identified actually means remains unclear.
"The neural signature we observed in the 1-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," explained Hendrix. "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."
To read the full study, click here.