Behavioral and neural effects of maternal early-life stress on mother-child interaction

Mothers who have been exposed to highly stressful experiences in childhood frequently have difficulties in identifying and responding empathetically to their children’s emotions and needs and exhibit altered physiological and hormonal reactions to their crying infants. These difficulties in dealing with infantile signals can impact the development of the children. However, the mechanisms underlying these changes are not known so far. Results of previous research showed that parenting interventions, focusing on the mother-child interaction, are effective in enhancing maternal sensitivity and infant attachment security.

The project will investigate the impact of mothers’ early--life stress on (1) psychological, (neuro)biological, and epigenetic correlates of maternal sensitivity and emotion regulation, as well as on mother-child interaction (Team A) and on (2) the development and emotional well-being of their 5- to 12-year-old children (Team B). Moreover, the efficiency of an intervention program (Parent Child Interaction Therapy, PCIT), which aims to improve mother-child interaction, will be compared to an individual stress training (Team A).

Mothers with or without past stress experiences and their children aged between 5 and 12 years are invited to participate in our study. We will conduct interviews with the mothers, observe mother-child –interaction, and assess executive and social cognitive functions, quality of life and well-being of the children. Moreover, we will assess salivary cortisol levels, (epi-)genetic markers, and neural activities. Some of these individuals will also be invited to participate in the training.

Department of General Psychiatry (Team A):    

project management: Prof. Dr. med. Sabine C. Herpertz, PD Dr. Dipl.-Psych. Corinna Reck, Dr. rer. nat. Dipl.-Psych. Katja Bertsch
research associate: Dipl.-Psych. Corinne Neukel, Dipl.-Psych. Anna-Lena Zietlow

Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Team B):    

project management: Prof. Dr. med. Eva Möhler, PD Dr. Dipl.-Psych. Corinna Reck, Prof. Dr. med. Franz Resch
research associate: Dipl.-Psych. Anna Fuchs