On April 13th, The Silver School of Social Work at NYU (regarded as the nation’s most premier clinical social work program) welcomed Dr. Alan Schore, a brilliant neuropsychologist whose ground breaking work continues to inform attachment theory and our understanding of how early maternal child interactions directly affect the rapidly growing right hemisphere of the neonate’s brain. That the quality of this bonding experience impacts the developing limbic structures which control affect regulation – a critical component of infant and eventual adult mental health – is well accepted.
In a recent article, “Relational trauma and the developing right brain: the neurobiology of broken attachment bonds” (Relational Trauma in Infancy, 2010), Schore concludes that the most stressful forms of early attachment trauma on these developing systems are abuse and neglect. Schore and others have demonstrated that early emotional trauma interferes with organization of right brain cortical-subcortical limbic circuits leading to compromise in such functions as attachment, capacity to play, empathy and affect regulation.
The ability to moderate one’s emotional responses to stress and other environmental stimuli is among the hallmarks of mental health. These developing right brain regulatory structures are exquisitely sensitive to the quality of maternal child bonding through mutually attuned and reciprocal responses.
Such associations are not new. Ovtscharoff & Braun (Neuroscience, 2001), state “the dyadic interaction between the newborn and the mothers…serves as a regulator of the developing individual’s internal homeostasis. The regulatory function of the newborn-mother interaction may be an essential promoter to ensure the normal development and maintenance of synaptic connections during the establishment of functional brain circuits.”
Currently, Montirosso, Borgatti & Tronick (in press), note that infants cope with emotional distress caused by unresponsive mothers through self-regulation behaviors associated with a greater activation of the right hemisphere.
These combined findings seem to indicate that initially, infants become highly stressed by unresponsive encounters with an emotionally absent caregiver, but eventually retreat to an internal world that may eventually affect attachment capacities. The physiological development of the infants brain and subsequent emotional experiencing can, apparently, be substantially influenced by the earliest interactions.
Fathers, however, are also implicated as contributors to optimal right brain development. Helmeke, Pinkernell and Braun (2009), have found an association between paternal deprivation during infancy and dendritic changes in orbitofrontal cortext and hemispheric asymmetry. (Dendritic spines faciliate exchanges among synaptic pathways). They suggest the infant is most susceptible to the father’s influence in the second year of life when paternal involvement informs male and female agression regulation (vs. mother and fear regulation.)
Yet, some studies note that fathers who become emotionally engaged with their neonates in the immediate postnatal period experience a decrease in testosterone and a rise in estrogen, possibly increasing the likelihood of paternal postnatal depression.
So does it then follow that a father’s significant contributions to infant/toddler affective regulation systems can also be compromised by less then optimal exchanges with the neonate due to paternal depression? Could paternal depression also compromise infant/toddler capacity for healthy emotional growth?
While these are provocative questions, they speak to the need to further qualify the influence of all early caregiving relationships be they those of a traditional family or any partner or single parent relationship which impacts this early stage of infant emotional development.
Study results will continue to be refined and confirmed by the advanced scientific tools (such as more sophisticated brain imaging while subjects are engaged in interactions) and emerging research protocols likely to focus our attention on the most critical factors in all above scenarios.
That all caregiving partners and their emotional relationship with the neonate exert powerful, chemically potent and physiologically altering influences on brain development is not surprising. Continuous awareness and emphasis on these factors, however, will help direct research which will not only refine such understanding, but work toward the development of clinical interventions which can minimize or possibly reverse the effects of early trauma.
Such outcomes would not only be relieving to parents forced to consider impact of their mental health disturbances during this sensitive period, but offer further encouragement that remediation is possible.
As Schore states, “Although the first year of life may be a period of developmental vulnerability, it may also be a period in which therapeutic interventions would have the greatest positive effect.”
For further information on this fascinating topic, Dr. Schore has three fantastic books on the subject:
1. Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development by Allan N. Schore (Paperback – Apr. 1, 1999)
2. Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self by Allan N. Schore (Hardcover – Apr. 2003)
3. Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self by Allan N. Schore (Hardcover – Apr. 2003)
Each week, we will continue to feature researchers, programs and individuals whose work has influenced our progress in the discovery and progression of maternal mental health issues. Their work has led to a pivotal moment of national awareness and passed proposal for the first federal funding focusing on the issue of perinatal mood disorders.