Maternal Warmth Protects Against the Negative Effects of Maternal Depression

Maternal DepressionI recently spent time with a friend who is a mother-to-be and struggles with depression. She was worried about how her depression might affect her relationship with her child as well as how it might affect the child’s own mental health. These are common concerns for many mothers and thankfully research is being done to address these concerns.

A recent study looked at levels of maternal warmth of mothers with and without a history of depression to see how it affected their son’s responses to rewards (positive feedback) in adolescence. It had previously been shown that one of the potential negative effects of maternal depression is to make children less able to respond to positive rewards.

The result is that children may be less able to plan for, anticipate and enjoy the rewards of positive action. Obviously this can have a big impact on motivation and success in life.

The researchers measured the level of activation in two parts of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the striatum) which are known to be essential to the experience of being rewarded.

Mothers with depression who were, nevertheless, able to show more warmth and loving feelings toward their children had sons whose brain activity in those two areas was similar to the pattern in children with mothers who never had depression, and was the opposite of what is seen in children of mothers with depression who are less loving, and what is seen in adults who experience recurrent depression.

In other words, it appears that mothers with a history of depression who express higher levels of maternal warmth and affection toward their sons (particularly during early childhood), increase the likelihood of their sons finding pleasure in the pursuit of rewards—despite disappointment or loss. The researchers suggest that this is a protective factor against depression and leads to healthy reward seeking in life.

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