These findings, from both human and animal studies, highlight the importance of a positive environment not only for the child, but for the mother as well.
"There is an old adage that applies to our research - the best a father can do for his children, is to love their mother," says Associate Director of Research at the DHRC and lead researcher, Michael Meaney, PhD. "We have shown that stressed mothers are distracted, unresponsive to their infants and frequently a bit harsh. In addition our newest findings show that this effect can be transmitted across generations. Keeping moms happy should be a priority."
Meaney's newest study, published in a recent issue of Biological Psychiatry, looked at the maternal behaviour of rats. His findings demonstrated that when attentive mothers were stressed during their pregnancy, they became less caring. This effect was measured by the licking and grooming frequency of their pups and was mirrored by changes in the proteins in their brains. The outstanding finding was that this behavior and biology was present in their off-spring and their off-spring's progeny - i.e. this effect was intergenerational.
"Our adage goes one step further," adds Meaney. "The best a grandfather can do for his grandchildren is to love their grandmother."
Meaney, a James McGill Professor in the McGill Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurosurgery, and his colleagues are also involved in a three-year project studying children who are born with a vulnerability to mental health problems. Their goal is to determine if these children are more vulnerable because their mothers have experienced stresses such as poor nutrition, depression, smoking or lack of support.
"Through this large countrywide effort, we may provide parents with insight into how they can help their children adapt to their environment and better prepare them to deal with stress," concludes Meaney.