Mom can buffer effects of stress on teen's memory

November 1, 2011 By Karene Booker, Cornell University

(Medical Xpress) -- Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working in . Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal . Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.