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Cambridge Science Festival 2016 investigates the bonds between mother and baby

The link between a mother and her baby is profound, and ongoing research discussed at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival suggests the extent of mother and baby brain interaction could be much deeper than we thought.

During the event, Baby-mum brain interaction: hands-on brains-on experience, researchers from the Baby-LINC (Learning through Interpersonal Neural Communication) lab use the latest wireless EEG (electroencephalography) brain imaging technology. By measuring brain activity in both mother and baby at the same time, their research is exploring how the electrical activity between two brains might become naturally synchronised during play, and whether this synchronisation might help babies to learn.

Speaking about the on-going study, researcher Dr Victoria Leong, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said: “Mothers and infants (and indeed some other types of close human pairs) share a special bond. Infants spend the vast majority of their time, particularly during their early formative years, in the company of their mother. And we know that this influences their behaviour. For example, we know that there is a phenomenon known as ‘behavioural synchrony’ – a mirroring of postures, gestures and even mood between mother and infant.

“Usually, this connection has an adaptive role – it keeps the mother physically and emotionally close to her baby and thereby in-tune with and responsive to their needs. However, this bi-directional connection can sometimes have unhappy consequences for the infant. For example, if a mother suffers from post-natal depression, she will tend to speak with a flattened tone that conveys sadness, and she will interact less with her baby. As a consequence, her infant will intuitively also start to vocalise less and express sadder emotional tone. We know from brain research that this goes beyond mimicry – these infants' brain patterns also show a fundamental shift from positive to negative valence (the technical term is frontal alpha power asymmetry), just like their depressed mothers. And if these infants are followed-up, their neural changes can sometimes persist and be associated with higher risk for emotional disturbances in later life. However, the good news is that these effects are not inevitable and lots can be done to help.”

“Now we are trying to explore the brain mechanisms of how infants learn from their parents. One idea we are looking at is whether, during a learning task, a baby’s patterns of brain activity begin to become similar to their mother’s patterns of brain activity. We are also looking at whether infants whose brain patterns are more synchronous to their mother’s also learn better from them.  But this work is just beginning, and we have yet to understand exactly how brain-to-brain synchrony is established and maintained, and what role it has in infants' cognitive and emotional processing.”

Further research into mother and child is discussed during the event, Pregnancy as a compromise: the coexistence of the mother and her baby. Professor Ashley Moffett, who leads the 'Maternal, Neonatal Reproductive Health Research’ theme of the Wellcome Trust Cambridge Centre for Global Health Research, describes how immune system genes act to ensure the compromise between adequate nourishment of a baby but that it also does not become so large that delivery through the pelvis is impossible. Professor Moffett also reveals how the study of these genes is leading to new understanding of the causes of maternal mortality.

In another related event, Building babies: the key to life-long health, Graham Burton, Professor of the Physiology of Reproduction at the University of Cambridge, introduces the concept of developmental programming, whereby a person’s risk of chronic disease in adulthood is related to their development in the womb. Professor Burton explores some of the possible mechanisms involved, the role of the placenta in supplying the necessary nutrients for baby growth, and illustrates how current research into placental function is changing our understanding of problems related to pregnancy, birth and childhood. The talk concludes by considering some of the broader implications of developmental programming for public health policy.

Since its launch in 1994, the Cambridge Science Festival has inspired thousands of young researchers and visitor numbers continues to rise; last year, the Festival attracted well over 45,000 visitors. The Festival, one of the largest and most respected, brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. It draws together a diverse range of independent organisations in addition to many University departments, centres and museums.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, BlueBridge Education, Siemens, ARM, Microsoft Research, Redgate, Linguamatics, FameLab, Babraham Institute, Wellcome Genome Campus, Napp, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, St Mary’s School, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Junction, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, James Dyson Foundation, Naked Scientists, Hills Road Sixth Form College, UTC Cambridge, British Science Week, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Live, and BBC Cambridgeshire.


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