Early Maternal Deprivation Can Cause Lasting Brain Function Alterations


Even a brief period away from a mother early in life significantly alters the future, adult function of the baby’s brain, a new animal model study from the School of Science at IUPUI has found. These changes in the brain are similar to disturbances in brain structure and function that are found in people at risk for neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

“Rat and human brains have similar structure and connectivity. Understanding what happens in the brain of a young rat that’s removed from its mother gives us important insight into how this type of early trauma—perhaps comparable to the incarceration of a human mother—affects the young human brain.

“The more we understand how the brain responds, the closer we come to being able to address and hopefully develop novel treatment strategies to reverse these neurological changes,"

said associate professor of psychology Christopher Lapish.

Behavioral And Neurological Changes

In the study, young rats were removed from their mothers for 24 hours when they were nine days old, which is a critical period of brain development.

The resulting scans revealed that, unlike animals that were not separated from their mother during this crucial period, the separated rats exhibited significant behavioral, as well as biological and physiological, brain abnormalities in adulthood.

“In this study, we found memory impairment, as well as less communication between brain regions, in the animals that had been removed from their mothers, among other neurological changes. These are all clues to how a traumatic event early in life could increase a person’s risk of receiving a schizophrenia diagnosis in the future,"

said corresponding author Sarine Janetsian-Fritz.

The causes of schizophrenia and the delay in the appearance of symptoms of this lifelong disease remain a mystery.

“Children exposed to early-life stress or deprivation are at higher risk for mental illness and addictions later in life, including schizophrenia. We have identified enduring changes in the brain and behavior that result from one type of stress in a rodent. These types of brain changes might mediate the effects of adverse events on children. Thus, policies or interventions that mitigate stress to children could reduce vulnerability to emotional disorders in adulthood."

said study co-author Brian F. O’Donnell, professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU Bloomington.

Early Life Trauma

Early-life detrimental events like malnutrition, maternal separation, or viral infection are known to potentially be disruptive to brain development, and are suspected to sometimes lead to psychopathology later in life, including schizophrenia.

Recent research provides evidence supporting the hypothesis that inflammation can also play a role in altering early brain development.  The results of this current study adds insight into how early life trauma confers a risk for neurodevelopmental disorders later in life.

The work was supported by an Indiana University Collaborative Research Grant.

Sarine S. Janetsian-Fritz, Nicholas M. Timme, Aqilah M. McCane, Anthony J. Baucum II, Brian F. O’Donnell & Christopher C. Lapish
Maternal deprivation induces alterations in cognitive and cortical function in adulthood
Translational Psychiatry volume 8, Article number: 71 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41398-018-0119-5