Maternal care giving can help sooth pain in infants, as well as alter gene activity within the brains of their young offspring, according to researchers from New York University (NYU). Changes in brain chemistry could assist developing brains,

Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center examined brains of baby rats, while in the presence of their mothers, comparing measurements to times when the pair were separated.

Electrical shocks were delivered to infant rats, while gene activation was monitored. Several hundred genes delivering pain signals were activated within rat pups who were separated from their mothers. Fewer than 100 such centers were sparked in those pups in the presence of their maternal parent.

Surgical examination of the almond-shaped amygdala revealed the genetic changes driven by the presence of the mother revealed the alterations affected cAMP and GPCR signaling between cells.

They found that hundreds of genes, including those responsible for pain signals, changed their actions based on the presence or absence of the mother. Samples were taken from the amygdala region of the rodent pups brains, an area which controls fear and directs some pleasure functions.

"Our study shows that a mother comforting her infant in pain does not just elicit a behavioral response, but also the comforting itself modifies - for better or worse - critical neural circuitry during early brain development," Regina Sullivan, a neurobiologist from NYU who led the new researcher, said.

Sullivan and her team believe their study could assist researchers in developing new methods of treating pain in infants. Opiate drugs, used to treat adults suffering from physical pain, can lead to  addiction, making physicians hesitant to order it in treatment of infants. This news study suggests that newborns could experience significant pain relief from being near their mothers. Physicians may be able to, one day, ease physical discomfort in infants, simply by exposing them to the scent of their mother, although this study does not prove that form of treatment could be effective.

"The more we learn about nurturing the infant brain during infancy, the better prepared we are to deal long-term with treating problems that arise from pain, and physical and mental abuse experienced during infancy," Sullivan said.

Research into the role mothers play in pain relief within infants was delivered to a meeting of the American Society for Neuroscience, on November 18.

The long-term effects of gene alterations initiated within infant brains are uncertain. Further research could examine the potentially-harmful effects of the modified genetic code.

This is the first major study to examine how brains of infant mammals are affected by locale of mothers.

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