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The new finding is that 10 year old children of persistently depressed mothers have larger amygdalas. This new finding makes me wonder.......about our society. But-- a little orientation for those of you who don't read about the brain all the time. The amygdala is part of the mammalian or limbic brain, and it is the part that helps us feel fear and loathing, instinctive attraction and lust, and mystical or religious experiences. In other words, the amygdala drives a whole lot of instinct and emotion, and is completely distinct from rational thought. Another recent study showed that political conservatives have bigger amygdalas, whereas political liberals have bigger frontal cortices. So my question is this: is our current generational swing to the right side of the politic spectrum due to a generation of depressed mothers? Or were these mothers inattentive for other reasons? Did the advent of television cause a rewiring of our brains on a population level? Just asking. What other factors could have caused a generational swing toward amygdalic dominance??


August 17, 2011 — Children who grow up with a depressed mother, who probably is not as attentive as a nondepressed mother, may develop an enlarged amygdala, the part of the brain linked to emotional responses, a new study suggests.

In the study, researchers observed significantly larger amygdala volume in 10-year-old children whose mothers struggled with depression throughout their young lives compared with their peers who had not been exposed to maternal depression.

Sonia Lupien, PhD, from the Mental Health Institute of University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and colleagues report their study online August 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Sonia Lupien
Enlarged amygdala volumes have also been seen in adoptees initially raised in orphanages, the study team notes.

Taken together, the findings suggest that the developing amygdala may be very sensitive to the quality and quantity of maternal care.

"Maternal depressive symptomatology has been associated with reductions in overall sensitivity to the infant and with an increased rate of withdrawn, disengaged behaviors," Dr. Lupien and her colleagues write.

The message, Dr. Lupien told Medscape Medical News, is that it is "important to treat the depressed patient, but also take into account the family unit."

"Many clinicians only concentrate on the patient that they treat, but other members of the family may also suffer from the depression of an adult (spouses and/or children)," Dr. Lupien added.

"No individual is alone in depression and it might be important to take care of the children as well as the mother and/or father in order to prevent the effects of depression from spilling over other family members."

Long-Term Consequences Unknown

Dr. Lupien and colleagues measured hippocampal and amygdala volume as well as stress hormone (glucocorticoid) levels in 17 children exposed to maternal depression since birth and 21 who were not. All of the children were 10 years old at assessment.

They found larger left and right amygdala volumes (P < .01) in the children exposed to maternal depression since birth compared with children without this exposure. They also observed a significant positive correlation between mothers' mean depression score over the first 7 years of the child's life and her own child's mean amygdala volume (P < .0001).

Hippocampal volumes did not differ between children exposed or unexposed to maternal depression, which isn't all that surprising, Dr. Lupien said.

Many studies, she explained, have shown hippocampal atrophy in adults, but not children, who report exposure to childhood adversity.

"This has led to the 'incubation hypothesis' whereby the effects of stress during childhood may only be apparent during adulthood (they may take time to emerge). This would be why we see hippocampal atrophy in adults exposed to early adversity but not in children exposed to adversity," Dr. Lupien said.

The investigators also observed increased salivary glucocorticoid levels (P < .05) in the children of depressed mothers when they were presented with unfamiliar situations, suggesting increased reactivity to stress in those children.

"The long term consequences of this increased reactivity to stress are unknown at this point," Dr. Lupien said.

Sensitive to Neglect

Medscape Medical News asked Nim Tottenham, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, for her thoughts on this study.

Dr. Tottenham was involved in the study, reported by Medscape Medical News, that found enlarged amygdala volumes and difficulties in emotion regulation in a group of children reared in orphanages (Dev Sci. 2010;13:46-61).

The current study, Dr. Tottenham said, "is very similar to what we had published in children adopted from orphanages (which is important), but I think what is most novel is that these children had experienced a more 'species-typical' rearing environment and yet showed the same phenotype."

"Taken together," Dr. Tottenham said, "the studies are showing that the developing human amygdala is highly sensitive to maternal neglect, whereas the hippocampus, unlike in adults, fails to show an impact during childhood."

"A strength of the paper," she said, "was that all the children were exactly 10 years old and the mother's depression was well-characterized across those 10 years."

"I sincerely think," Dr. Lupien commented, "that developing interventions to help parents and children deal with the stress associated with depression in one family member could provide very positive results for all the family members, and society at large."

The study was supported by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and Fonds de recherche en santé du Québec. The authors and Dr. Tottenham have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Proc Natl Acad Sci. Published online August 15, 2011.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 19th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
Wow! This means there should be a connection between fear and conservatism (which i always thought, certainly they are reciprocally reinforcing), but it also suggests a connection between fear and spirituality and between spirituality and conservatism. As a person who considers himself both "spiritual" and "radical" (to me there is only a radical left, radical right is an oxymoron) i am given pause.....??????
Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:44 am (UTC)
There's a big difference between religiousity and spiritualism. Don't worry, you are not an oxymoron. Heh.

My theory about today's politics is that it is a circle. There is left and right and the middle where Obama lurks, all of which accept the status quo in terms of finance and government to a great degree. Then there is the far left and far right which can barely speak to each other, but both agree that our current system is fubar and needs to be dismantled and reborn. And then between far left and far right is where I find myself, completing a circle. I am somewhere between socialism and libertarianism, wishing that we could somehow have a political party with the long view about human survival (thrival?) instead of the short view of the next election.
Aug. 22nd, 2011 04:31 am (UTC)
Yeah. Thrival i like.
Aug. 20th, 2011 12:01 am (UTC)
So..you are saying conservatives are...retarded?



Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
More emotional and instinctive, and less cerebral and rational? They wouldn't like that characterization but it seems deeply true.
Aug. 20th, 2011 02:26 am (UTC)
That is interesting! I think it depends. My mother-in-law was a massive depressive. Only one of the four is a political conservative. He lives in New Hampshire and is perhaps the most defensive person I have ever met. The others are more into the "people need to help each other" model, since your life can fall part due to forces beyond your control.

My kids BECOMING tea party types. Now THAT would be depressing!
Aug. 20th, 2011 02:36 am (UTC)
Even though now that I think about it for another second...My sister in law (who is a MESS) has kids that are strong believers in the occult. She is as well. They watch those shows on cable and really BELIEVE. She has flirted with Pentecostal type denominations. My younger niece LOVES old time Religion. I think it gives her some sense of security.

My Brother in law is a member of a very conservative "Lutheran" church that has NO structure and is conducted by lay preachers, who open up the bible and speak extemporaneously. There is no doctrine or educational process other than hanging around in church. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak. It's all about 'faith' and 'belief'

My husband believes in God, but is a-religious.
Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
Belief in anything is dangerous. Better to be skeptical even of what we believe, and to allow for possibility of truth in each viewpoint no matter how contrary to our own. ....
Aug. 20th, 2011 03:10 am (UTC)
First of all, you know as well as I do that studies of the brain are dicey at best. It's virtually impossible to separate cause from effect. The study that stated that conservatives have larger amygdalas therefore could be measuring cause IE, conservatism is caused by enlarged amygdala which create additional fear and drive a person into conservative patterns, OR, enlarged amygdala could be an *effect* of conservatism, IE, observation of the trends of the country cause the conservatives to fear for the future, which causes enlargement of the amygdala.

It is also important to mention that the original study that determined that conservatives have larger amygdalas consisted solely of a sample of students at University College London. A rather liberal institution. Perhaps the conservatives simply fail to feel safe at that location, and that was the cause of the enlarged amygdala. More study is needed.

In either case, the enlargement of the amygdala correlating to depressed mothers makes a great deal of sense, as depression in the mother tends to erode stability of the homelife, which would be a cause of such enlargement. Based on that enlargement, it's reasonable to assume that the people would react by becoming more cautious in their decisions, which could easily correlate to greater political conservatism.

However, given that the tea party is primarily comprised of older people, I am somewhat sceptical that Gen X mothers are the cause of it.
Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:38 am (UTC)
Agreed, there is nothing conclusive about these findings, but I can't help but to notice all the parallels! The chicken and egg question is eternal. Perhaps the baby boomer conservatism has to do with the Great Depression and its after effects!? I can tell that the GD had a profound effect on the psychology (and possibly neurobiology) of my own family. There are however some generational changes noticeable in the offspring OF generation x mothers.... have you read A General Theory of Love yet? Great book that offers an excellent survey of the literature about human attachment, and some theories about what is happening among our young and why.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )



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