Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
August 07, 2020
2 min read

Early parenting intervention may improve child social cognitive development

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
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An early parenting intervention appeared to enhance child brain regions associated with social cognitive development, according to study results published in American Journal of Psychiatry.

“It has been well documented that children who experience maltreatment are less likely to develop secure attachments to parents than children who are not maltreated,” Emilio A. Valadez, PhD, of the department of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland, and colleagues wrote. “Insecure or disorganized attachments, in turn, place children at greater risk for internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems than secure attachments. Findings from both human and animal investigations have identified neural responses to parent cues during childhood as a candidate biological mechanism linking early caregiving experiences to attachment-related processes and mental health outcomes.”

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Although prior studies among animals have established the causal role early parenting experiences play in offspring reactivity to parent cues, similar efforts among humans have been mostly correlational. In the current study, Valadez and colleagues conducted a longitudinal randomized clinical trial with the aim of testing the causal effects of an early parenting intervention, the Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC) on children’s neuroprocessing of parent cues, as well as on psychosocial functioning. According to the investigators, this intervention is “well-characterized” and “evidence-based,” and is delivered across 10 in-home sessions by trained parent coaches.

Valadez and colleagues analyzed data of 68 participants with a mean age of 10 years. They randomly assigned parents of 46 children at high risk for abuse or neglect to receive either a control intervention (n = 24) or the ABC intervention (n = 22) while the children were infants, and they compared outcomes to those of 22 children at low risk for abuse or neglect. Children viewed pictures of their own mothers and of a stranger during functional MRI scanning.

Results showed greater maternal cue-related activation among children in the ABC group vs. those in the control group in clusters of brain regions, such as the hippocampus, the cingulate gyrus and the precuneus, all of which are associated with social cognition. Moreover, greater activity in these regions was linked to fewer total behavior problems. The investigators observed an indirect effect of early intervention on middle childhood psychosocial functioning. This effect appeared mediated through increased activity among brain regions in response to maternal cues.

“Overall, the significant indirect effects of the ABC intervention revealed by mediation analysis suggest that in addition to the intervention causing greater mother-specific activation of the empirically identified brain regions (perhaps suggesting enhancement of the child’s parent-child relational representation), this pattern of activation may be indicative of improved parent-child relationship factors that are enhanced by this intervention and are associated with better psychosocial outcomes,” Valadez and colleagues wrote. “In other words, these results suggest a possible neural pathway through which an early parenting intervention — in this case, ABC — may prevent future behavior problems among [children at high risk], yielding psychosocial benefits that endure through at least middle childhood without the need for additional intervention.”