Monday, October 10, 2016

Women inherit the "emotional brain" of their mothers

emotional brain

Childhood is critical for our development, especially from the emotional point of view. The way our parents meet our basic needs will largely determine the emotional ties that we will establish and ultimately affect our emotional balance as adults and the way we relate to others.

If our parents are concerned about our needs and were able to support us adequately, we will develop a secure attachment and is likely we become persons with a healthy self-esteem who trust in their potential and are not afraid to explore the world and meet the challenges.

But if our parents didn’t meet adequately our needs, either because they were emotionally distant or because they were over-protective, it is likely we develop an evasive, precarious and disorganized attachment, and that means it will be harder for us to establish healthy relationships with others, we will have the tendency to suffer from emotional dependence or, on the contrary, of Filofobia.

In this process, the corticolimbico system plays a vital role in that it has a key role in our emotional reactions, as well as in mood disorder such as depression and anxiety. This system consists of: amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Now a study conducted at Stanford University reveals that the cortico limbic system, which has the primary responsibility to regulate our emotional responses, has an hereditary component, which may explain why several studies have found that some disorders, such as depression, have a high incidence on mothers and daughters.

The emotional system of mothers and daughters is similar

These neuroscientists have scanned the brains of the members of 35 families and found that the volume of gray matter was quite similar in some areas related to emotions, both in mothers and daughters, as well as the morphology of the “emotional brain”.

This correlation wasn’t found in fathers. In fact, everything seems indicate that the emotional system is more easily transmitted from mother to daughter, and less from mother to son. Fathers, on the contrary, would be less likely to transmit to children their emotional brain circuits.

To better understand the implications of this result, we can imagine the cortico limbic system such as an highway made of neural connections on which experiences are moving, especially those of emotional nature. This system saves the significant memories, it is also the guardian of episodic memory, that one relating the autobiographical events just like the the most important moments and places from the emotional point of view.

According to these neuroscientists, the way the system is structured will depend largely on the structure of the maternal system. This means that the emotional responses of the daughters will be quite similar to those of the mothers.

Of course, this is not the first study to find a link between the emotional responses of the mothers and the children. For example, it was found that maternal stress during pregnancy causes a greater production of corticotropin, which influence the RNA message that reaches the amygdala.

It was also seen that the way mothers take care of their children will have an epigenetic influence. Researchers at the University of Montreal have discovered, working with guinea pigs, that maternal care affects the methylation mechanism, which means that is involved in the regulation of gene silencing, being capable of inducing alterations in the transcription of genes without causing an alteration in the DNA sequence. Interestingly, these effects are strongest between mothers and daughters. In fact, maternal stress during pregnancy causes changes in the amygdala’s volume in female children and not in males.

Beyond genes

A newborn has millions of neurons but very few neural connections, these will form over time. However, the main “neural highways” are traced biologically, which means that the bases are created, but are life experiences that consolidate those roads or, on the contrary, destroy them.

Therefore, although women are more likely to inherit the cortico limbic system from their mothers, this is not the only cause of emotional disorders. Because depression will develop, for example, a genetic predisposition is not enough, also social factors and life experiences have an influence. The hereditary contribution of mothers is just one piece of a larger puzzle.

But we can not ignore the fact that mothers bequeath their way of seeing life, transmit us a sense through which we will give meaning to our world. So if we grew up listening to complaints and pessimism, we will have more chances of developing a negative view of life. Conversely, if we grew up in resilience and perseverance, it is likely we will be more open to the experience and we will know better how to deal with adversity.

This also means that, despite the genetic and psychological inheritance we received, we can change any time our emotional responses. The genetic conditioning will continue to exist, and it will be harder for some than for others, but our reaction to events depends, ultimately, by the sense that we give to them and then the attitude we take towards life.

Yamagata, B. et. Al. (2016) Female-Specific Intergenerational Transmission Patterns of the Human Corticolimbic Circuitry. The Journal of Neuroscience; 36(4): 1254-1260.
Champagne, F. A. et. Al. (2006) Maternal care associated with methylation of the estrogen receptoralpha1b promoter and estrogen receptor-alpha expression in the medial preoptic area of female offspring.Endocrinology; 147:2909 –2915.
Ardila, R. & Bunge, M. (2002) Filosofía de la Psicología. Barcelona: Ariel.
Cratty, M. S. et. Al. (1995) Prenatal stress increases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) content and release in rat amygdala minces. Brain Res; 675:297–302.


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Women inherit the "emotional brain" of their mothers
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Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to to string words together. Discover my Books


Psychology as you never heard about...

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