Separating babies from mothers may cause mental health risks


Being taken away from a mother or a primary caregiver even for a brief moment in early life can result in significant traumatic alterations in the future and affect the adult function of the brain, according to a recent rat study.

These alterations in the brain are comparable to disturbances in the brain structure and function that are detected in people at risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

This study, administered in the laboratory of Christopher Lapish, an associate professor of psychology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, gives us an understanding of the early stages of trauma occurring in a young rat’s brain when detached from its mother.

The observations collected may help us understand the brain of an adolescent who was physically, mentally or emotionally neglected. This can also spur more policies in regard to present day events of children being separated from their family at a young age for political reasons.

Throughout the study, rats were removed from their mothers, which did not foster a maternal connection. Usually, at the ages of 13-14 days, rats begin to open their eyes. In the study, the rats were removed from their mothers for 24 hours when they were nine days old. However, this is a critical period for brain development. If a baby rat is removed from its mother for more than four hours and not kept warm, its health may be affected tremendously.

According to PetCoach, “[Baby rats] can be weaned at 4 weeks, but you can leave the girls with their mom as long as you want. [But it is best to] remove boys before 5 weeks, or they may breed with their mother or sisters.” The observations collected from this study revealed that unlike animals that were separated from their mother, the separated rats manifested significant behavioral, as well as biological and physiological, malformations in adulthood.

According to Lapish, “Rat and human brains have similar structure and connectivity.” The more we understand how the brain responds, the closer we come to being able to address and hopefully develop novel treatment strategies to reverse these neurological changes.”

During the study, various alterations such as memory impairments and less communication between brain sections, as well as other neurological changes, were discovered in the rats that were separated from their mothers.

Corresponding author, graduate student in Lapish’s lab and current postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology Sarine Janetsian-Fritz stated, “These are all clues to how a traumatic event early in life could increase a person’s risk of receiving a schizophrenia diagnosis in the future.”

The bases of neuropsychiatric disorders and the delay in the appearance of symptoms pertaining to schizophrenia is unknown. Brian F. O’Donnell, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington and co-author of the study stated: “Children exposed to early-life stress or deprivation are at higher risk for mental illness and addictions later in life, including schizophrenia. Thus, policies or interventions that mitigate stress to children could reduce vulnerability to emotional disorders in adulthood.”

In relation to modern-day current events, multiple migrant children have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of them very young, and have wound up in shelters where stress, negligence and lack of communication take place.

For many years, some “teachers and caregivers completed the MacArthur Health and Behavior Questionnaire, which includes subscales on depression, overanxious, social anxiety/withdrawal, oppositional defiant behavior, conduct problems, overt aggression, relational aggression and ADHD,” ScienceDaily declared. The surveys conveyed the effect of how a child’s environment starting at a young age can remarkably alter an adolescent’s brain as they reach adulthood.

Children living in quality foster care, compared with the ones who remained in institutions, had less psychopathology and negative behaviors. The behaviors began to appear by the age of 12 years and started to become vital by the age of 16 years.

To prevent various neuropsychiatric disorders from occurring, children must be exposed to high-quality environments starting at a young age, with appropriate caregiving to reduce the risk of such disorders.

However, this is not to say that caregiving will necessarily stop adolescents from experiencing psychological disorders, as it can still be difficult for a child to be excluded from their parents or other family members. The acceptance of this information may result in the creation of programs that prevent family separation.