What Human Parents Can Learn from Rat Parents

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by Kaetlin Zink

According to a recent publication in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry, parents who are frequently distracted by their cell phones can impair their children’s emotional development — particularly a child’s ability to find or feel pleasure. Pleasure, here, is defined as our desire to engage with our peers and demonstrate acts of care and love.

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So, what do rats have to do with anything? We can see some similarities in the parent-child relationship of these mammals to our own.

Human babies and rat babies, for example, both look to their caregivers to guide their own feelings and actions. When a caregiver provides food to their young, for instance, it indicates that it’s time to eat. If food is present but the parent doesn’t eat it, however, the association between eating and enjoyment can get disrupted, throwing the pleasure system off balance.

A scientist from the University of California wanted to see how an imbalance present in a young rat’s development could affect it as it grew into adolescence, and, in turn, possibly shed some light on what distracted human parents could be teaching their children.

The Study

To look at how interrupted attention from mothers can affect their babies, Professor of Pediatrics and Anatomy-Neurobiology at the University of California Dr. Tallie Baram and her colleagues set up a study with rat mothers and their babies.

Even though the study was animal-based, findings suggest that rat forms of behavior have something to say about the way we humans act and behave.

Mother rat carrying her baby in her mouth, 5 days old, in front of white background

Baram put groups of mothers and their babies in a cage — half of the test subjects were given a sufficient supply of bedding material, and the other half were given an insufficient supply of bedding material. The insufficiency in the second group was enough to divert the mother’s attention away from the newborns, giving them unreliable and interrupted attention as the mothers attempted to find things to enhance the environment.

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Baram and her group of researchers then analyzed the developmental differences between the group that had sufficient bedding in comparison to those with insufficient bedding.

As the babies grew older, the researchers looked at things like how much interaction they were getting, the amount of sugar solution they were consuming, and two ways of gauging how much pleasure they were experiencing by following a proxy measurement for their emotional development.

Findings

The rats raised in the insufficiently-bedded home ended up eating less sugar solution (considered a treat) and playing with their friends less than the rats that grew up in a typical setting — even though they had spent just as much time with their mothers.

Baram and his researchers were even dumbfounded by what they had found: “We had to go back and look at what the heck we had done. What was it in the development of these baby rats, what aberrant signals did they get?” The rats were of normal weight because they had a proper food supply and grew up under the right temperature conditions.

What distinguished the rats in the remodeled environment from the others was the type of attention they were receiving. The mothers living under inadequate circumstances, too stressed about meeting their environmental needs, had a higher likelihood of exhibiting unpredictable behaviors than mothers living under normal conditions. Rather than displaying grooming acts or gestures that reassured their offspring — a rat’s way of hugging and kissing — or showing that it’s time to eat or play, for instance, these mothers would be too preoccupied looking for materials to improve their surroundings.

Baram and her team are now directing their focus on human babies to identify whether, and to what degree if so, inconsistencies with the caretaker’s behavior affects their children. By utilizing brain imaging, they plan to investigate plausible differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions that might be altered due to the mother’s behavioral shift.

Significance

The adolescent rats in the modified atmosphere, having displayed signs of compromised pleasure, suggest that there might be a critical window in which newborns must be exposed to specific patterns of behavior from mom or dad so that the nervous system can function and develop correctly. The mothers’ failure to give dependable and consistent attention to their babies interfered with the animals’ ability to develop proper emotional connections, leaving them unable to accurately process and interpret pleasure.

Lonely rat

Baram notes that “we do need rhythms and consistent exposure beyond the ears for them to be capable of discerning complex patterns in speech and music. We need patterns for the visual system to develop. I guess we need predictability and consistency for the emotional system to develop. Nobody looked at that before.”

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Predictability, or understanding that one behavior will undoubtedly lead to another, as Baram says, is crucial for engagement of the pleasure system: “The predictability of maternal care seems to engage the pleasure system, and the pleasure system needs to be engaged so the neurons involved will fire together and then will wire together.” This means knowing that by a predictable factor like time that food will come or a toy will appear, indicating play time.

Human Babies’ Development

We can apply these findings to our own young and look at what effect we may be having on our kids when we are preoccupied while spending time with them. When a parent is distracted by an incoming call or text message on their cell phone, for example, we may be breaking this pattern of predictability, and necessary learning that should take place potentially may not. Several studies have even demonstrated how weak development of the pleasure system can play a role in mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Just as there is a critical time for us to fully develop sensory systems, like sight and hearing, there may also be a critical period when babies, rat or human, require undivided attention from parents so that proper emotional processes form and make connections.

Rat families may be able to teach us a thing or two about raising happy, healthy kids.


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