Study finds parenting programs influence brain connectivity in at-risk children

Jamie Hanson, PhD, is lead author of the study "A Family Focused Intervention Influences Hippocampal‐Prefrontal Connectivity Through Gains in Self‐Regulation," published on Oct.8 in Child Development. Hanson, an assistant professor of psychology and research scientist in the Learning Research and Development Center, provides the following lay summary:

"While the stressors associated with poverty can significantly impact mental health, family-centered prevention programs (and other strategies) can aid in achieving more positive outcomes over time. These programs build skills and competencies in youth and families by improving parental emotional support, fostering parent-child communication, helping youth to set goals for the future, etc. The current study explored whether participation in these types of programs can impact the brain. Specifically, we examined whether participation in a family-centered prevention program (the Strong African American Families, SAAF) at age 11 was related to differences in the brain at age 25.

"To address this question, we collected neuroimaging data from a sample of 93 African American young adults who have been participating in a longitudinal study since they were 11 years of age. Neuroimaging data was collected using resting state fMRI (where individuals are lying awake in the MRI scanner and not engaged in a specific task or activity). We focused on brain connectivity (or interactions) between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex; these brain regions are involved with remembering information and making decisions.

"We found three important things. First, we found that adult participants who completed the intervention (as youth) had stronger connections between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, compared to adults who did not complete the intervention.

"Second, we found that improvements in self-regulation connected to the intervention (measured right after the program, at age 11) was associated with the connections between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

"Third, we found that this brain connectivity was also related to disruptive behavioral problems that people reported as adults. Individuals with higher brain coupling had fewer problems with aggression and reported losing their tempers less.

"These results suggest that participation in programs that enhance supportive parenting may be one cost-effective way of addressing social disparities and promoting the well-being of at-risk children."