Breastfeeding May Alter Gene That Influences How Children Deal With Stress Interview with:

Barry M. Lester, PhD Center for the Study of Children at Risk Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island Providence, Rhode Island;

Dr. Lester

Barry M. Lester, PhD
Center for the Study of Children at Risk
Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University
Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island; What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: We know from rodent studies that maternal care or nurturing behavior can change the rat pups physiologic response to stress. More nurturing behavior makes it easier for rat pups to relax after stress. Not only that, these changes are permanent, they last into adulthood and there is evidence that these changes can be passed on to the next generation. With animal studies you can unlock the mechanism for this in ways that you can’t do with humans and we know from the rodent studies that the mechanism for these changes has to do with changes in gene activity.

Nurturing behavior controls a specific gene that regulates the infant’s physiological response to stress. In other words, we are looking at maternal behavioral programming of a gene that can make, in our case, a human infant less physiologically reactive to stress.

The physiological reactivity to stress that we studied was the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is part of the body’s flight or fight reaction, the body’s major response to stress and too much or too little cortisol can be harmful and is related to a wide range of mental and physical health disorders in children and adults. The concerns about separating immigrant children from their parents that we read about every day in the paper are based on this same physiological system, where brain structures that control cortisol production are damaged by the stress of separation. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The fact that our findings parallel the rodent work suggests that the same mechanisms are involved which means that we can think about the development of interventions to increase maternal nurturing to mitigate mental and physical health disorders by altering physiological stress reactivity. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The main difference between our study and the rodent work was that the changes in gene activity that we found were in a different region of the gene than that of the rodent. This region includes cortisol related activity but it also includes activity related to the immune system and it is well known that breastfeeding benefits the baby’s immune system.

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for at least the first 6 months. This region of the gene is also involved in neural activity and there is some connection in the literature between breastfeeding and IQ.  So, our study is unique in that the type of maternal care or nurturing that changed gene activity and lowered cortisol reactivity was specifically breastfeeding which can have multiple impacts on infant development. 


Pediatrics September 2018

Epigenetic Programming by Maternal Behavior in the Human Infant

Barry M. Lester, Elisabeth Conradt, Linda L. LaGasse, Edward Z. Tronick, James F. Padbury, Carmen J. Marsit


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