Children whose mothers were nurturing during the preschool years, as opposed to later in childhood, have more robust growth in brain structures associated with learning, memory and stress response than children with less supportive moms, according to research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"This study suggests there's a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support," said first author Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

The study is published online April 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

The researchers studied a series of brain scans of children from preschool through early adolescence, finding a sharper rise in the volume of the hippocampus in the kids whose mothers supported and nurtured them during the preschool years. That region of the brain is critical to learning, memory and regulating emotions. In contrast, the hippocampus appeared smaller in adolescents whose mothers were less supportive during the preschool period, even if their mothers became more supportive in elementary or middle school.

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