Summary: Robust communication between parent and child during early years appears to have a beneficial effect on health behaviors as adults, researchers report. Adults who reported good communication with their parents as children had lower instances of alcohol abuse and eating disorders.
Children with greater parent communication in early adolescence have less harmful alcohol use and emotional eating in young adulthood, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry.
The 14-year study, which followed participants from 11 to 25 years old, identified that the extent of communication between parents and children promotes the development of a brain network involved in the processing of rewards and other stimuli that, in turn, protects against the overconsumption of food, alcohol and drugs. In this way, robust parent-child communication has an impact on health behaviors in adulthood.
“It might mean that social interactions actually influence the wiring patterns of the brain in the teenage years,” said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “It points to an important potential role of family interactions in brain development and the emergence of maladaptive behaviors in adulthood,” he added.
The study, led by Christopher Holmes, PhD and colleagues from the University of Georgia’s Center for Family Research, focused on rural African Americans, an understudied population that may be disproportionately at risk for these harmful health behaviors in young adulthood. In 2001, the research team began a longitudinal study involving rural African American families with a child 11 years of age. Between the ages of 11 and 13 years, participants reported on interactions with their parents, including the frequency of discussions and arguing.
When the participants reached 25 years of age, a subsample of 91 participants was recruited from the larger study to take part in a neuroimaging session that measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Specifically, the researchers used fMRI to study a network of brain connections called the anterior salience network (ASN). The participants also answered questions about harmful alcohol use and emotional eating at age 25.
Greater parent–child communication in early adolescence predicted greater connectivity of the ASN at age 25, supporting the idea that high-quality parenting is important for long-term brain development. Greater ASN connectivity was, in turn, associated with lower harmful alcohol use and emotional eating at age 25. The findings point to the ASN as a brain mechanism for how parenting in childhood affects health behaviors in early adulthood.
“These findings highlight the value of prevention and intervention efforts targeting parenting skills in childhood as a means to foster long-term, adaptive neurocognitive development,” said Allen Barton, PhD, corresponding author of the study.
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Original Research: Abstract for “Parenting and Salience Network Connectivity among African Americans: A Protective Pathway for Health-Risk Behaviors” by Christopher J. Holmes, Allen W. Barton, James MacKillop, Adriana Galván, Max M. Owens, Michael J. McCormick, Tianyi Yu, Steven R.H. Beach, Gene H. Brody, and Lawrence H. Sweet in Biological Psychiatry. Published March 19 2018.
Parenting and Salience Network Connectivity among African Americans: A Protective Pathway for Health-Risk Behaviors
Supportive parenting during childhood has been associated with many positive developmental outcomes for offspring in adulthood, including fewer health-risk behaviors. Little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying these associations.
The present study followed rural African Americans (n = 91, 52% female) from late childhood (11–13 years of age) to emerging adulthood (25 years of age). Parent–child communication was assessed at 11, 12, and 13 years of age. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used at 25 years of age to measure resting-state functional connectivity of the anterior salience network (ASN). Harmful alcohol use and emotional eating were also assessed at 25 years of age. Structural equation modeling was used to test pathways from parent–child communication at 11 to 13 years of age to harmful alcohol use and emotional eating at 25 years of age via resting-state functional connectivity of the ASN.
Greater parent–child communication between 11 and 13 years of age forecast greater resting-state functional connectivity of the ASN at 25 years of age which, in turn, was associated with lower harmful alcohol use and emotional eating at 25 years of age. Significant indirect effects through the ASN were present for both outcomes.
These findings indicate the importance of parenting in late childhood for adaptive behaviors and suggest a pathway via higher ASN coherence. This network was implicated in both harmful alcohol use and emotional eating, corroborating evidence of overlap in brain regions for dysregulated substance use and eating behaviors and revealing divergent pathways. These findings support the value of prevention and intervention efforts targeting parenting skills in childhood toward fostering long-term, adaptive neurocognitive development.