Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal has shown that the more attention the rat mom gives her offspring in the first three weeks of their lives, the less stressed mothers are at the end of their lives and the smarter they are in their water mazes.
"Sadly, research also suggests the flip side," says Dr. Lambert, "Neglect early in a child's life can result in high anxiety throughout adulthood among other problems. Our findings suggest that moms may have a post-puberty window of neuronal growth during their maternal experiences. If so, it is important for women to realize this window of opportunity and re-structure our cognitive approach toward motherhood."
Implications of this Research
"The changes that occur during pregnancy show the plasticity of the female brain," says Dr. Kinsley. "In rodents, hormonal events of single and multiple pregnancies and lactations appear to rework the female brain in ways that facilitate learning, memory, problem solving, stress reduction, and life-long cognitive activities."
Rat studies are relevant to humans because the parts of a rat's brain that activate during maternal behavior are almost identical to those of a human female.
"Of the systems that are affected as a result of pregnancy, and that regulate the many behavioral changes characteristic of the female, the brain experiences the most striking modifications," says Dr. Kinsley.
What Does This Mean for Mothers?
The plasticity of the brain through the influence of hormones, mental stimulation, and repetitive behavior as with mothers in pregnancy and child rearing contributes to the changing and growing of the brain over a lifetime. New neurons and connections are made all the time.
"There are certainly more times in life when there are windows of brain development, when the brain is more plastic than at other times. Motherhood is one of those times," says David Lyons, a Stanford University primatologist.
In her book, Ellison helps outline the benefits of Lambert and Kinsley's research, among others, and how this knowledge benefits mothers.