Exposure to early and chronic maternal depression increases a child’s risk of having a dulled sense of empathy toward others’ pain, according to a new study published in the the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).
Israeli researchers followed children of mothers with depression from birth to age 11 and evaluated the effects of maternal depression on children’s neural empathic response to others’ distress.
A total of 27 children of mothers with depression were involved in the study, as well as 45 controls. They received home visits at nine months and six years to examine mother-child interaction patterns and were invited to a magnetoencephalography (MEG) session at age 11 in order to evaluate their neural reaction to pain in others.
“We were amazed to see that maternal depression in and of itself was related to differential neural processing of others’ pain in 11-year-old children,” said Professor Ruth Feldman, director of the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab and the Irving B. Harris Early Childhood Community Clinic at Bar-Ilan University and lead author of the study.
“We found that the neural reaction to pain in children of depressed mothers stops earlier than in controls, in an area related to socio-cognitive processing, so that children of depressed mothers seem to reduce mentalizing-related processing of others’ pain, perhaps because of difficulty in regulating the high arousal associated with observing distress in others.”
The findings also show that mother-child interaction patterns play a significant role on this effect. When mother-child interactions were more synchronous — that is, mother and child were better attuned to one another — and when mothers were less intrusive, children showed stronger processing abilities in this particular area of the brain.
“It is encouraging to see the role of mother-child interactions in our findings. Depressed mothers are repeatedly found to show less synchronous and more intrusive interactions with their children, and so it might explain some of the differences found between children of depressed mothers and their peer controls in our study,” said Feldman.
“If so, our findings highlight a point of entry, where future interventions can focus their attention to help reduce the effects of maternal depression on children’s psychosocial development.”
“The main clinical question now becomes: What strategies are most effective to improve mother-child interaction patterns for depressed mothers and their offspring. Moreover, if we are able to help these mothers be more attuned and less intrusive, will it be enough in order to enable resilience in the offspring?”
Currently, the research team is studying how maternal depression and mother-child interactions are tied to children’s stress hormones, behavioral empathy, hormones related to bond formation and their neural reaction to affiliative cues.
Feldman also plans to study intervention strategies that focus on the mother-child interaction pattern. She is hopeful that if successful, these strategies will improve mental health and social adjustment in children of mothers with depression.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting and promising if an intervention focused on synchronous mother-child interactions could also reduce the prevalence of psychopathology in the children of depressed mothers?” she said.