Beijing: Parents, take note! Children left without direct parental care for extended periods of time show larger gray matter volumes which can delay their brain development, a new study has warned.
Researchers in China studied how the migration of parents in pursuit of better jobs has affected the millions of children who have been left in the care of relatives for a period of more than six months without direct parental care from their biological parents.
“Previous studies support the hypothesis that parental care can directly affect brain development in offspring. However, most prior work is with rather severe social deprivation, such as orphans. We looked at children who were left behind with relatives when the parents left to seek employment far from home,” said Yuan Xiao from the West China Hospital of Sichuan University in China.
For the study, MRI exams from 38 left-behind girls and boys (ages 7 to 13) were compared to MRI exams from a control group of 30 girls and boys (ages 7 to 14) living with their parents.
The researchers then compared the gray matter volume between the two groups and measured the intelligence quotient (IQ) of each participant to assess cognitive function.
They found larger gray matter volumes in multiple brain regions, especially in emotional brain circuitry, in the left-behind children compared to children living with their parents.
The mean value of IQ scores in left-behind children was not significantly different from that of controls, but the gray matter volume in a brain region associated with memory encoding and retrieval was negatively correlated with IQ score, researchers said.
Since larger gray matter volume may reflect insufficient pruning and maturity of the brain, the negative correlation between the gray matter volume and IQ scores suggests that growing without parental care may delay brain development.
“Our study provides the first empirical evidence showing that the lack of direct parental care alters the trajectory of brain development in left-behind children,” Xiao added.