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Early parenting plays key role in infants' physiological response to stress
Date:9/15/2008

In infancy, genes are the key influence on a child's ability to deal with stress. But as early as 6 months of age, parenting plays an important role in changing the impact of genes that may put infants at risk for responding poorly to stress.

That's the message from a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania State University, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and North Carolina State University. It appears in the September/October 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers looked at 142 infants who had been placed in a stressful situationbeing separated from their motherswhen they were 3, 6, and 12 months old. They measured infants' heart rates while they were exposed to the stressor, isolating a cardiac response called vagal tone. Vagal tone acts like a brake on the heart when the body is in a calm state, but during a challenging situation, this brake is withdrawn, allowing heart rate to increase so the body can actively deal with the challenge.

They also collected DNA to determine which form of a dopamine receptor gene the infants carried; specific forms of this gene are related to problems in adolescence and adulthood including aggression, substance abuse, and other risky behaviors. To assess the mothers' behavior as high or low in sensitivity, they also videotaped the mothers and their infants playing together for 10 minutes when the babies were 6 months old.

Both genes and parenting were found to be important to the infants' development of the way in which the brain helps regulate cardiac responses to stress. At 3 and 6 months old, those infants with the form of the dopamine gene associated with later risky behaviors did not display an effective cardiac response to the stressor (a decrease in vagal tone which takes the brake off the heart so it can respond appropriately), while those infants with the non-risk version of the gene did. At thes
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Contact: Andrea Browning
abrowning@srcd.org
202-289-7905
Society for Research in Child Development
Source:Eurekalert

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