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The power of a parent’s positive communication on a baby’s brain shown by University of Cambridge research




It has long been known that emotional communication between parents and their children is important in early development, but little has been understood about what is happening in the brain during it.

Now University of Cambridge scientists have shown that a mother and baby’s brains are more strongly in sync with one another when the mum expresses positive emotions.

Negative and positive object demonstration in the University of Cambridge research and the infant's interaction with objects. Picture: University of Cambridge (25450596)
Negative and positive object demonstration in the University of Cambridge research and the infant's interaction with objects. Picture: University of Cambridge (25450596)

It is thought this may help a baby to learn and his or her brain to develop.

The researchers in the Department of Psychology asked 15 mothers to express positive or negative emotions about a series of objects.

A method called dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) was used to monitor brain signals via a cap on the head of each mum and baby.

The study concluded that positive interaction, with lots of eye contact, enhanced the ability of mother and infant brains to operate like a single system, with brain waves synchronised.

This effect is known as interpersonal neural connectivity and was found to be prominent in the frequency of 6-9 hertz, the infant alpha range.

This synchronisation promotes efficient sharing and flow of information between mother and infant.

Dr Vicky Leong, who led the study, said: “From our previous work, we know that when the neural connection between mothers and babies is strong, babies are more receptive and ready to learn from their mothers.

“At this stage of life, the baby brain has the ability to change significantly, and these changes are driven by the baby’s experiences.

“By using a positive emotional tone during social interactions, parents can connect better with their infants, and stimulate development of their baby’s mental capacity.”

Dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) was used to monitor brain signals via a cap on the head of each mum and baby..Picture: University of Cambridge (25450598)
Dual electroencephalograhy (EEG) was used to monitor brain signals via a cap on the head of each mum and baby..Picture: University of Cambridge (25450598)

The researchers used a mathematical model of network analysis to examine the qualities and structure of the interpersonal neural connectivity. This showed how information flowed within each brain and how the two brains operated together as a network.

The research also explains how babies of depressed mothers may face a weakened neural connection with their mum, and therefore show less evidence of learning.

It is known that mothers who experience a persistently low or negative mental state as a result of clinical depression tend to have less interaction with their baby, have less eye contact and use a flatter tone in their speech. They are also less likely to respond when their baby tries to get their attention.

Dr Leong said: ““Our emotions literally change the way that our brains share information with others - positive emotions help us to communicate in a much more efficient way.

“Depression can have a powerfully negative effect on a parent’s ability to establish connections with their baby. All the social cues that normally foster connection are less readily available to the child, so the child doesn’t receive the optimal emotional input it needs to thrive.”

The research, published in the journal NeuroImage, is the first brain imaging study of two related individuals to investigate how the emotional quality of their social interaction affects their interpersonal neural connectivity.

Demonstrating how emotions change the connection between two individuals at a neural level. the researchers also say the findings could be applied to others who are in tune with one another, such as couples, close friends and siblings. The effect is likely to depend on how well the two people know each other and the level of trust between them, the researchers suggest.

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