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Early parental care is important for hippocampal maturation: Evidence from brain morphology in humans

The effects of early life experience on later brain structure and function have been studied extensively in animals, yet the relationship between childhood experience and normal brain development in humans remains largely unknown. Using a unique longitudinal data set including ecologically valid in-home measures of early experience during childhood (at age 4 and 8 years) and high-resolution structural brain imaging during adolescence (mean age 14 years), we examined the effects on later brain morphology of two dimensions of early experience: parental nurturance and environmental stimulation. Parental nurturance at age 4 predicts volume of the left hippocampus in adolescence, with better nurturance associated with smaller volume. In contrast, environmental stimulation did not correlate with hippocampal volume. Moreover, the association between hippocampal volume and parental nurturance disappears at age 8, supporting the existence of a sensitive developmental period for brain maturation. These results indicate that variation in normal childhood experience is associated with differences in brain morphology, and that hippocampal volume is specifically associated with early parental nurturance.

Authors: 
Hengyi Rao
Laura Betancourt
Joan Giannetta
Nancy Brodsky
Marc Korczykowski
Brian Avants
James Gee
Jiongjiong Wang
Hallam Hurt
John Detre
Martha Farah, University of Pennsylvania
Publication Date: 
January, 2010
Publication Type: 
Journal: 
NeuroImage
Volume: 
49
Issue Number: 
1
Pages: 
1144-1150
Document Number: 
R0058