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April newsletter

April News Letter

How mother’s levels of oxytocin may differ in women with depression

The goal of this study is to look at how breast feeding, oxytocin and face-to-face interactions between a mother and her baby are impacted by depression and the mother’s oxytocin levels.

“We already know that pregnancy escalates oxytocin levels and that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which have anti-depressive effects,” said Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology “In this new study, we are looking at oxytocin levels in pre- and postpartum mothers who suffer from depression to see how they differ from mothers who don’t have depression.

Another novel aspect of the study is that we also are examining the oxytocin levels of the infant once they are born and how these levels change across development.”

Higher oxytocin levels in mothers may indicate higher oxytocin levels in infants, which occurs during breast feeding and interactive touching.

“We are really trying to understand how these varying levels of oxytocin affect the mother-infant emotional relationship as well as the baby’s emotional development and their emotional bond with their mother,” said Jones.

New evidence shows that maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought and is estimated to occur in approximately 10 to 20 percent of new mothers. An independent panel of experts appointed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that women should be screened for depression during pregnancy and after giving birth.

Using a multi-pronged approach for the study, Jones and her lab team follow moms-to-be from pregnancy through the first six months after delivery. They use surveys that address depression, breast feeding and bonding, conduct home visits, and collect urine samples from mothers and their babies to test their oxytocin levels.

They also look at changes in the babies brain wave activity when the baby is 2 weeks old, 3 to 4 months old, and again at 6 months old. Looking at the asymmetry in the baby’s brain to see how the left and right sides of the brain are communicating, which has been associated with emotional experiences and learning.

“In our previous studies on breast feeding versus bottle feeding and depression, we found similar patterns of brain asymmetry in the baby and the mother,” said Jones.

“What appears to be happening is that these babies are either inheriting or developing a pattern that is similar to their mother’s depression. They focus on the negative emotions and withdraw from stimuli as if they are withdrawing from the world.”

“If depression in mothers-to-be is not addressed and treated, these mood disorders can negatively impact the child’s well-being and the important mother-child bonding process,” said Jones. “So many women don’t want to talk about depression in pregnancy or postpartum because they think that it’s saying something about their inability to parent, and it’s not. There are a lot of factors that are contributing to mental health including hormonal, cultural or just the stress that’s associated with being a parent. And all of these things can be helped.”

Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science

Babies make quick judgments about adults’ anger

Babies form generalizations about adults’ anger and try to appease those they think might be anger-prone, new research indicates. It suggests that babies are capable of coming up with appeasement gestures in situations involving anger-prone adults.

This research reveals for the first time that 15-month-old babies generalize an adult’s angry behaviour even if the social context has changed.

Adults often form fast opinions about each other’s personalities, especially when it comes to negative traits. If we see someone argue with another driver over a parking space, for instance, we may assume that person tends to be confrontational.

Two new research studies with hundreds of 15-month-old infants demonstrate that babies form similar generalizations about others and make attempts to appease adults they consider prone to anger.

The research, by scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), reveal for the first time that 15-month-old babies generalize an adult’s angry behaviour even if the social context has changed.

“Our research suggests that babies will do whatever they can to avoid being the target of anger,” said lead author Betty Repacholi. “At this young of an age, they have already worked out a way to stay safe. It’s a smart, adaptive response.”

In one of the studies, published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, Repacholi and co-authors wanted to see how exposing babies to an unfamiliar adult’s anger toward another adult would affect the babies’ behaviour in a new situation. Do the babies assume that the initial negative encounters would happen again?

“Our research shows that babies are carefully paying attention to the emotional reactions of adults,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff.

“Babies make snap judgments as to whether an adult is anger-prone. They pigeon-hole adults more quickly than we thought,” added Meltzoff.

The experiment went like this: The babies, 270 15-months-old that included a mix of boys and girls, sat on their parents’ laps across the table from a researcher called the “Experimenter.”

The baby saw the Experimenter demonstrating how to play with a series of toys. In each trial, a second researcher, the “Emoter,” reacted in either a neutral way (“That’s entertaining.”) or negative way by saying “That’s aggravating!” in a stern voice when the Experimenter performed her action on the toy. The Emoter’s reaction was the same for each toy.

Then the baby had a chance to play with the same toy.

The researchers measured how readily the babies imitated the Experimenter’s actions. Babies who witnessed the angry outburst were less likely to play with the toy or to duplicate the adult’s actions than babies who saw a neutral reaction from the Emoter.

Next, the Experimenter showed the baby how to play with a new toy. This time, however, the previously angry Emoter now appeared to be neutral.

“We wanted to see if babies would treat the anger they had seen before as a one-off event or whether they see it as being part of the person’s character,” Repacholi said.

When given the chance to play with the new toy, the babies who knew the Emoter’s angry history avoided playing with the toy, compared with the babies who were in the neutral group.

“It’s as if the baby doesn’t trust that the Emoter is now calm,” Repacholi said. “Once babies have detected that someone’s prone to anger, it’s hard to dismiss. They’re taking a better-safe than-sorry approach, where they’re not going to take a risk even though the situation has apparently changed.”

A second new study by Repacholi, Meltzoff and team suggests that babies are capable of coming up with appeasement gestures in situations involving anger-prone adults. The findings are published online and will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Infancy.

Using a similar experimental setup, another group of babies — 72 15-month-olds, with an even number of boys and girls — first observed either the “angry” or “neutral” Emoter’s reaction to toys used by the Experimenter.

Then, the twist: the Experimenter brought out new toys designed to be highly desirable to the infants, such as a toy with a small ball that lit up when rotated.

Sitting on their parents’ laps, the babies got to play with the appealing toy briefly before the Emoter — who had a neutral facial expression and wasn’t showing any anger at this point — asked for a turn.

What did the babies do? Those who had previously seen the Emoter be angry readily relinquished the toys. That is, 69 percent of babies in the “anger” group gave up the toys compared to 46 percent of babies in the “neutral” group.

“I was so surprised to see the infants give the toys away — it was like they were appeasing or compromising with the adult,” Repacholi said. “They didn’t want to risk making the previously angry adult mad again. They didn’t act this way with the other adult who had not shown anger.”

Together the studies illustrate how babies:

– make quick judgments about people’s emotional qualities

– can have negative emotions dominate their perceptions of a person’s character, and

– tend to assume a person with a history of anger will become angry again even if the situation has changed.

Our studies show that babies are very tuned into other people’s anger,” Repacholi said. “For parents, it’s important to be mindful of how powerful that emotion is for babies.”

Added Meltzoff, “The babies are ’emotion detectives.’ They watch and listen to our emotions, remember how we acted in the past, and use this to predict how we will act in the future. How long these first impressions last is an important question.”

Betty M. Repacholi, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Theresa M. Hennings, Ashley L. Ruba. Transfer of Social Learning: Exploring Infants’ Attribution of Trait-Like Emotions to Adults. Infancy, 2016
Betty M. Repacholi, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Tamara Spiewak Toub, Ashley L. Ruba. Infants’ Generalizations About Other People’s Emotions: Developmental Psychology, 2016

Training parents online and over the telephone significantly decreased preschool children’s disruptive behaviour

According to Strongest Families study from the Research Centre for Child Psychiatry at the University of Turku. This intervention programme decreased children’s aggressiveness, noncompliant behaviour, ADHD symptoms, and emotional problems as well as strengthened their ability to feel empathy.

The research was supported by the Academy of Finland, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, Kummit Association and Margaretha Foundation.

The Strongest Families Intervention Programme supports parents and provides them with tools to confront and reduce their child’s disruptive behaviour. The study and its results were published in the  JAMA Psychiatry journal.

It is the first randomised study in the world to be published and it was based on screened population and carried out in a digital treatment environment as a secondary prevention parent training. The study is also the largest research project in Finland that focuses on early detection, intervention and prevention of mental health problems in families with children.

The effectiveness of the programme was evaluated on a six and twelve-month follow-up period. The target group of the study consisted of the 4,656 families that participated in the annual child health clinic check-ups for four-year-old children. 730 families, whose four-year-old had behavioural problems and parents felt that the child’s behaviour was disruptive, were selected to the study.

Half of the screened families participated in the 11-week intervention programme. The parents received support each week over the telephone by their personal family coach and, at the same time, they studied skills for positive parenting on the Strongest Families website. In contrast, the control group received an information package supporting parenting skills and one phone call.

The study indicates that during the 12-month follow-up the behavioural problems of the four-year-old children reduced significantly in the families who participated in the 11-week programme compared to the control group .

In the intervention group, parenting skills as well as the child’s disruptive behaviour, ADHD symptoms, anxiety, sleep problems and empathy improved significantly when compared with the control group and the results were permanent throughout the 12-month follow-up.

During the year’s follow-up, over 80 percent of the children whose parents received the training would not have been selected for the intervention programme for their disruptive behaviour. In the control group that received more limited support, the percent was 66.

The significance of the results becomes apparent when they are compared with earlier cohort studies, which have indicated that the behavioural problems are permanent in half of preschool children , explains Professor of Child Psychiatry Andre Sourander who led the study. Sourander emphasises the importance of the intervention programme in preventing antisocial behaviour.

The results are significant as disruptive behaviour in childhood is linked to mental health problems, criminality, substance abuse and higher mortality in adulthood. Disruptive behaviour that starts in childhood is also connected to adolescent intoxication, smoking from an early age, poor life management skills and excess weight, which are central risk factors for health problems later in life.

The intervention programme focuses on noticing and strengthening children’s good behaviour. The parents were instructed to ignore mild bad behaviour and to anticipate transitional situations. It is easier for a child to succeed in new situations when they are planned beforehand together with the child. Parents who earlier experienced their child as difficult received tools for solving everyday problems and learnt to value their child in a new way.

At the Research Centre for Child Psychiatry, researchers are developing new low-threshold treatment programmes that are based on digital care environment and telephone coaching. Sourander reveals thatthe Strongest Families programme will be incorporated into the preventive mental health care system in different parts of Finland. The Strongest Families is a suitable support and intervention programme for the risk group identified from the entire age group.

There are great opportunities in Finland to systematically utilise this kind of intervention, as the needed expertise and infrastructure exist already and the entire population is covered by the national health care system. With a nation-wide early intervention programme, Finland could be a pioneer in the prevention of different kinds of problems related to health and behaviour, concludes Sourander.

Academy of FinlandJournal Reference:

Andre Sourander, Patrick J. McGrath, Terja Ristkari, Charles Cunningham, Jukka Huttunen, Patricia Lingley-Pottie, Susanna Hinkka-Yli-Salomäki, Malin Kinnunen, Jenni Vuorio, Atte Sinokki, Sturla Fossum, Anita Unruh. Internet-Assisted Parent Training Intervention for Disruptive Behavior in 4-Year-Old Children. JAMA Psychiatry, 2016; DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.3411

Maternal smoking during pregnancy leaves a lasting mark on a child’s genetic make-up

If mothers smoke during pregnancy, they influence the epigenetic programming of their unborn child’s genetic make-up in the long term. This may give rise to an increased risk of the development of disease risks later in the child’s life. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg and the Heidelberg University discovered that these changes are not limited to individual regions of DNA. In fact, the researchers stated in the Molecular Systems Biology journal that they particularly accumulate in enhancers of gene expression.

Maternal smoking during pregnancy is harmful to the unborn child as well as the mother. This is a known fact. “For the first time, we can now demonstrate that exposure to tobacco smoke also causes epigenetic changes in enhancers of gene expression,” said Irina Lehmann, Environmental Immunologist at the UFZ. These deregulated enhancers are distributed throughout the child’s entire genome.

Epigenetic changes form part of countless processes that occur during human development. The genetic material functions as a blueprint for all cells. In order for different cell types, e.g. liver or muscle cells, to develop, certain genes must be activated or deactivated at certain times. One of the ways this happens is through epigenetic changes which can be disrupted by various environmental factors.

In their latest study, the group of researchers from Leipzig and Heidelberg revealed that epigenetic changes related to tobacco smoke increase the risk of children developing lung diseases.

The underlying data comes from the epidemiological study entitled LiNA (Lifestyle and environmental factors and their Influence on Newborns Allergy risk). In this study, researchers asked which environmental factors could have a negative influence on children’s health during pregnancy.

In collaboration with the Municipal Hospital “St. Georg” in Leipzig, UFZ researchers have been monitoring 622 mothers and their children since 2006. The mothers underwent in-depth examinations for possible exposure to environmental factors during their pregnancy.

For their current work, two groups of mother-child pairs were examined: mothers who smoked during pregnancy and mothers who were not exposed to tobacco smoke. Together with the genome researchers working with Roland Eils at the DKFZ and the Heidelberg University, the researchers examined the epigenome of the mothers and the children.

They wanted to find out whether there was evidence of epigenetic changes in the smoker families that did not occur in the non-smoker families – and which consequences this may have for the children’s health. “We were able to find evidence of epigenetic changes in smoking mothers as well as in the umbilical cord blood of the newborn babies,” said Lehmann. The changes thus occur in the womb and affect the unborn child’s gene regulation.

The researchers determined that smoking particularly affects enhancer regions in the genome. Enhancers are DNA regions that regulate the expression of one or more genes. Lehmann explained that: “If an enhancer region is affected by the effects of smoking, this may lead to deregulation of several genes at the same time.”

The researchers give an example of the consequences of a deregulated enhancer in their work: the enzyme JNK2 (c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase 2) plays a role in inflammatory responses. If the enhancer that activates JNK2 is now affected, this may increase the risk of lung diseases in the children’s later life

The researchers also determined that the epigenetic effects observed in the umbilical cord blood at birth can still be seen several years after the child is born. However, it could not be ascertained beyond doubt whether these effects are long-term impacts of exposure to smoke prior to birth. “Children who are exposed to tobacco smoke even before being born usually continue to be exposed to this after their birth,” said Lehmann. She added that the prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke after birth may contribute to the observed stability of epigenetic changes.

In their analysis, the researchers identified more than 400 enhancers affected by tobacco smoke. They regulate genes that play a role in a variety of diseases such as diabetes, adiposity or even cancer. “This discovery will allow us to start understanding the mechanisms that make smoking the cause of such a wide range of diseases,” said Roland Eils.

Peter Walker