Building on well-established animal data demonstrating the effects of early maternal support on hippocampal development and adaptive coping, a few longitudinal studies suggest that early caregiver support also impacts human hippocampal development. How caregiving contributes to human hippocampal developmental trajectories, whether there are sensitive periods for these effects, as well as whether related variation in hippocampal development predicts later childhood emotion functioning are of major public health importance. The current study investigated these questions in a longitudinal study of preschoolers assessed annually for behavioral and emotional development, including observed caregiver support. One hundred and twenty-seven children participated in three waves of magnetic resonance brain imaging through school age and early adolescence. Multilevel modeling of the effects of preschool and school-age maternal support on hippocampal volumes across the three waves was conducted. Hippocampal volume increased faster for those with higher levels of preschool maternal support. Subjects with support 1 SD above the mean had a 2.06 times greater increase in total hippocampus volume across the three scans than those with 1 SD below the mean (2.70% vs. 1.31%). No effect of school-age support was found. Individual slopes of hippocampus volume were significantly associated with emotion regulation at scan 3. The findings demonstrate a significant effect of early childhood maternal support on hippocampal volume growth across school age and early adolescence and suggest an early childhood sensitive period for these effects. They also show that this growth trajectory is associated with later emotion functioning.
Keywords: emotions; hippocampus; maternal support; preschool; sensitive period.