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A Closer Look: Q&A with Dr. Joan Luby

Joan Luby, M.D. is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University School of Medicine.  Her research with colleagues at Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis is the first to show that changes in the hippocampus are linked to a mother’s nurturing in early life.

Can you briefly summarize the findings of your study, “Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age?”

The study investigated the role of maternal support, observationally measured, during the preschool period, on the size of the hippocampus, a brain region key to cognitive functioning and stress regulation at school age.  Study findings showed that early maternal support was a powerful predictor of hippocampal volume at school age, even when a number of key factors thought to influence the development of the hippocampus were controlled in the analysis.  The limitation in the study was that maternal support was based on only one observation.  Study findings underscore the importance of maternal or caregiver support early in a child’s life to healthy brain development.

You found that maternal support did not influence hippocampal volume among children with depression. What are your thoughts about this?  Was there anything else about your study that surprised you?

We feel that this is likely related to the fact that brain development in depression is influenced by a number of other factors, and more than early maternal support is needed in this risk trajectory.

How does this study contribute to the existing research regarding early childhood nurturing and brain development?

This is the first study that we are aware of in humans that uses prospective data to show that early experience impacts brain development in a positive fashion.

How would you like to continue your research in this area?

We are continuing to follow this study sample and will conduct two additional waves of scans in study subjects to learn more about the effects of early environment and early depression on the trajectory of brain development in childhood and early adolescence. Whether early damage related to lack of support can be corrected is unknown, but I would think it is possible.

What are the implication of your study for policy and practice?

I think that this should have very powerful implications for policy and practice.  Study findings show that early caregiver support is critical for healthy brain development in humans and suggest that more attention to this domain is critical.  The numerous empirically supported interventions that address this area should now be applied more widely in public health programs.

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