A cuddle a day keeps the stress away

Babies who receive care and cuddling from their mothers grow up better able to handle stress, according to Michael J. Meaney, the James McGill Professor in McGill University’s Departments of Psychiatry and Neurobiology & Neurosurgery. Meaney, a researcher specializing in maternal care and how differences in such care can modify brain development, will deliver the first lecture of 2008 in the York Seminar in Advanced Research: "The Development of the Infant as an Integrated Whole". Meaney’s lecture is part of a series of  seminars in advanced research funded to York psychology Professors Scott Adler and Maria Legerstee by the Office of the Associate Vice President for Research. It will take place on Thursday, Jan. 10, from 4:30 to 5:30pm, in the Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson. This lecture is free and open to the public.

Right: Michael Meaney

As a researcher, Meaney is interested in how adversity experienced in early life alters an individual’s neural development and how it makes them at risk for pathology later in life. According to Meaney, early life events serve as potent determinants of vulnerability and resistance to chronic illness, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and drug abuse.

In his presentation on Thursday, Meaney will describe his research into how maternal care alters the development of behavioural and endocrine responses to stress in the rat, including effects that involve stable changes in the expression of genes in brain regions that mediate how rats react to stress. His research has found that the kind of care a mother rat gives her offspring produces an effect that continues into adulthood. Animals that received a lot of care and grooming produced fewer stress hormones when dealing with difficult or stressful situations. Stress hormones have a long-term effect on the body. When too many of these hormones are produced over a long time, there is an increased risk for chronic illness. Maternal care also influenced reproductive function in female offspring.

Meaney’s work with animals indicates that a loving, secure environment is key to healthy outcomes for children. The implications of his work, says Meaney, are clear and suggest a need for public policies and practices that support the family and children in their early years.

The lecture is sponsored by the Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and the Office of the Vice-President of Research & Innovation at York University. It is part of an ongoing series of presentations.

Future confirmed speakers include Professor Elisabeth Fivaz Depeursinge of the School of Medicine at the University of Lausane, Switzerland, who will deliver a lecture, titled "Early development of triangular communication in the family", on Feb. 4.

On March 13, Professor Patricia Bauer, senior associate dean for research and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta will speak on "Event memory: Links between social, cognitive, and neural developments".

Speaking on April 16 will be Arlene Walker Andrews, professor of psychology and associate provost, University of Montana, who will speak on "The Situated Infant: Learning in Context".