VANCOUVER - Rat mothers who touch and groom their offspring create happier, smarter rats — not just for one generation, but for successive generations, according to researcher Michael Meaney. Good mothering, in other words, changes the DNA of generations of rats.
Meaney is a featured speaker at the Brain Development and Learning Conference, which will bring cutting-edge scientists, doctors, psychologists, and prenatal development experts together with 600 teachers, social workers, educators and front-line medical professionals for five days beginning this Friday.
If you take rat pups bred to be high-stress and low intelligence and have them raised by a mother bred to be low-stress and highly intelligent, the pups will turn out like Mom, her actions changing the expression of the pups’ genes, said conference organizer Adele Diamond.
“Not only that, but they will mother like their mom. It will change the gene expression for generations to come,” she said.
“We know what it means for good rat mothering, but what are the implications for human mothering?” Diamond asked. The conference will present four speakers who will address that question from a variety of angles, including how a mother’s depressive state affects her children and the effects of skin-to-skin contact in kangaroos.
“It may be that the touch between mother and child is critical, and we tend to downplay touch,” Diamond explained.
Though much of the research presented at the conference sounds on the surface to be unimaginably complex, buried in the murky processes of the brain and difficult concepts such as gene expression, the take-away message could not be more fundamental. Sound advice about nurturing, nutrition, learning, joy and healthy social behaviour are absorbed and taken back to schools, hospitals and homes.
And the messages do not just flow from experts to attendees. The real synergy of the conference happens when the floor opens up at each event for the teachers, doctors and social workers to share what they know, said Diamond, a professor and developmental neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia and B.C. Children’s Hospital.
California-based researcher Paul Patterson will present findings about the relationship between maternal stress and schizophrenia, with real-world implications for prenatal care.
“We’ve known for about a decade that if a mother has the flu when she’s pregnant her offspring is more likely to have autism or schizophrenia,” Diamond explained. “Paul’s work shows that it is not the flu infection that causes the effect, it’s the immune response that the body mounts, the same immune response that comes from stress.”
So not only do expectant mothers need to protect against getting the flu; they also need to avoid the effects of stress to head off potential problems for their children, she said.
The conference takes place July 16 to 20 at the Hyatt Regency. Other themes include the impact of math instruction on learning and the brain, and how we develop memory.