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Maternal depression, insensitive parenting tied to infant EEG asymmetry

Pearl Toh
18 May 2017

Maternal depression and insensitive parenting were independently associated with infant right frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) asymmetry, which has been linked to negative emotion and behavioural difficulties, among infants who spent a substantial amount of time with their mothers, according to data from the GUSTO* longitudinal birth cohort.

“Both maternal depression and parenting behaviours shape emotional and cognitive information, which affects child development in attention and memory as well as emotional reactivity of the central nervous system,” explained the researchers led by Professor Anqi Qiu from the National University of Singapore.    

While it is known that maternal depression and poor parenting can predict childhood emotional and behavioural problems, whether the latter could moderate the effect of maternal depression on behavioural problems in their children remains unknown.

Contrary to their hypothesis, Qiu and colleagues found no evidence of an interaction between maternal insensitivity (in parenting) and the effect of maternal depression on infant frontal EEG asymmetry (p=0.49). [Translational Psychiatry 2017;7:e1057]

However, they showed that lower sensitivity (p=0.04) and higher depression levels (p=0.04) in mothers were independently associated with greater asymmetry in the right frontal EEG of their 6-month-old infants. The association was significant in a subset of infants (n=55) who spent ≥50 percent of their daytime hours with their mothers, but not in the entire study sample (n=111), indicating that the amount of time mothers spent with their children is an important factor in determining the effects of maternal mood and/or sensitivity on infant frontal EEG asymmetry.

Frontal EEG asymmetry at 6 months of age was also significantly correlated with negative emotionality of infants when they reached 12 months of age (p=0.035) among all participants, suggesting that greater relative asymmetry in the right frontal EEG at 6 months was predictive of negative emotionality at 12 months.

“Hence, the results of this study could highlight the importance of early interventions for improving the quality of care, even in low-risk groups. Infant brain development can be positively impacted from spending considerable time with mothers who are highly sensitive or have low levels of depressive symptoms,” said Qiu and co-authors.

“Our study suggested that among infants with sufficient postnatal maternal exposure, both maternal sensitivity and mental health are important influences on early brain development,” they added.

Noting that “in many Asian cultures, it is common for infants to live in the same household as their coresidential grandparents or to be extensively cared for by their grandparents”, the authors believed that this might partly explain why maternal depression and insensitive parenting were not significantly associated with asymmetry in infant right frontal EEG in the full study population.  

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Pearl Toh, 13 Jan 2018
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