UCI gains $10 million for mental health study

UC Irvine has received a $10 million federal grant for research into the connection between a mother’s pattern of caring during her child’s infancy and emotional and behavioral problems arising during adolescence.

UC Irvine has been awarded a $10 million federal grant to study how a mother’s patterns of caring for her infant may cause brain changes that can lead to behavioral and emotional problems during adolescence.

The five-year funding, which was announced Tuesday, comes from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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Dr. Tallie Baram, a pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist, said researchers are studying children from the womb through the teenage years to better understand causes of depression, risk-taking behavior and other mental health disorders.

“By and large, mothers take good care of children but there’s variability and some are better than others,” she said. “We are trying to determine what is good maternal care and what makes it better.”

The UCI research focuses on the patterns of signals a mother sends to her baby – whether heart rate in the womb or a routine of offering a toy, smiling and hugging her child before bedtime.

“It appears that consistent, reproducible and complex patterns seem to contribute to resilience to stress later in life,” said Baram, the lead researcher on the study.

Inconsistency, she said, seems to change brain function and structure. For instance, a rat who received fragmented or unpredictable grooming as a baby will perform poorly on an intelligence test when stressed.

“What we seem to see is that this changes the levels of some very important molecules that respond to how we handle stress later in life,” Baram said. “This is true in both brain parts responsible for cognition, learning and memory and brain parts that are responsible for emotion.”

UCI psychiatrists will examine how frequent mood changes during pregnancy affect the fetus. Brain imaging of children and rodents will also be done to look for changes in brain structure, connectivity and function.

“The beauty of it is you go from one molecule to one baby,” Baram said. “You’re also looking across time from a fetus to an adolescent. It really is very comprehensive in approach.”

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