Health Day reporter
WEDNESDAY, Nov. 17, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Grandmothers can have a strong bond with the small children in their families – and the connection even shows up on brain scans, researchers say.
Investigators embarked on a unique study, examining the brains of older women – not looking for signs of dysfunction, as in the case of dementia, but to study their links to their grandchildren.
“What really stands out in the data is activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” said study author James Rilling, professor of anthropology at Emory University, in Atlanta. “This suggests that grandmothers aim to feel what their grandchildren feel when they interact with them. If their grandchild smiles, they feel the joy of the child. And if their grandchild cries. , they feel the pain and distress of the child. “
The researchers wanted to understand the brains of healthy grandmothers and how this may relate to the benefits they provide to their families.
For the study, Rilling’s team assembled 50 participants who filled out questionnaires about their experiences as grandmothers. The women provided details about the time they spend with their grandchildren, the activities they do together and the affection they feel for them.
The team also used functional MRI to measure the women’s brain function as they looked at photos of their grandchild, an unknown child, the same-sex parent of the grandchild, and an adult. unknown.
Most participants showed more activity in areas of the brain involved in emotional empathy and movement when looking at pictures of their own grandchildren than when looking at other pictures.
Grandmothers whose scans showed more strongly activated areas involved in cognitive empathy when viewing photos of their grandchild indicated in the questionnaire that they wanted greater involvement in the care of the grandchild. .
Additionally, when grandmothers viewed images of their adult child, they showed stronger activation in an area of the brain associated with cognitive empathy. This indicates that they may be trying to cognitively understand what their adult child is thinking or feeling and why, but not so much on the emotional side.
“Young children have likely developed traits to be able to manipulate not only the maternal brain, but also the large maternal brain,” Rilling said in a college press release. “An adult child doesn’t have the same cute ‘factor’, so they can’t elicit the same emotional response.”
Rilling is a leader in research into the neurosciences of fatherhood, less explored than that of motherhood. The co-authors of the study are Minwoo Lee, a doctoral student in Emory’s Department of Anthropology, and Amber Gonzalez, a former Emory research specialist.
“Here we highlight the brain functions of grandmothers which can play an important role in our social life and development,” said Lee, who also said he could relate to the research due to her own close ties to her grandmothers. “This is an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left outside the realm of neuroscience.”
Humans are cooperative breeders, which means that mothers receive assistance in caring for their offspring, although the sources of this assistance vary both between and within societies, the researchers explained. authors of the study.
Rilling said that while it’s often assumed that fathers are the most important caregivers next to mothers, sometimes it’s grandmothers.
The “grandmother’s hypothesis” postulates that the reason human females tend to live long beyond their reproductive years is because they provide evolutionary benefits to their offspring and grandchildren, the researchers noted.
Evidence is also mounting that positively engaged grandmothers are associated with children performing better on a range of measures, including school, social, behavioral and physical health, according to the study’s authors. the authors of the study.
Compared to the results of a previous Rilling Lab study in which fathers looked at photos of their children, grandmothers activated regions involved in emotional empathy and motivation more strongly, on average, when they looked at pictures. images of their grandchildren.
“Our results add to the evidence that there appears to be a comprehensive system of parental care in the brain, and that the responses of grandmothers to their grandchildren are mirrored in it,” said Rilling.
The results were published on November 16 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Learn more about child development, which can be influenced by parents and grandparents.
SOURCE: Emory Health Sciences, press release, November 16, 2021
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