Parental presence linked to reduced fear activation in children’s brains

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A recent study published in the journal Developmental Science has shed light on how the presence of parents can influence their children’s fear responses. The findings suggest that the presence of a parent during a fear-inducing scenario can modulate the activity in brain areas associated with fear responses. In particular, parental presence was found to reduce activation in the centromedial amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, areas linked to fear processing and emotional regulation.

The study was motivated by the desire to better understand how the presence of parents affects children’s neural responses during fear conditioning, a fundamental process by which individuals learn to associate a neutral stimulus with an aversive one. Fear conditioning is crucial for survival, enabling organisms to recognize and respond to potential threats.

While this process has been extensively studied in adults, there is limited understanding of how it operates in children and adolescents. The researchers aimed to fill this gap by examining the influence of parental presence on the fear responses of young people.

“We all know how important parents are to the emotional development of their children, and that parental care protects children from developing emotional difficulties. We know, for example, that children who grew up without a stable caregiver, such as children who grew up in institutions or experienced multiple switches in their caregiving environment, are prone to develop anxiety and difficulties in regulating emotions,” said study author Lior Abramson, a postdoctoral scientist at the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab at Columbia University.

“However, we don’t really know what happens in the brain level that makes the protective influence of the parent so robust. We were fascinated by previous data from animal studies, which showed that parental presence buffers pups’ stress response while they are being exposed to an aversive environment by altering the activation of a specific circuit in the brain. We were interested to see if a similar process occurs in human youth and parents as well.”

The study involved 52 participants aged 6 to 17, who were part of a larger research project on emotional neurodevelopment. The participants were placed in an MRI scanner and shown two different fractal images. One of these images (the conditioned stimulus) was paired with an unpleasant, loud noise (the unconditioned stimulus) 75% of the time, while the other image was never paired with the noise (safety cue). This setup was intended to measure how the brain responds to both the learned threat and the actual stressful stimulus.

Before and after the conditioning phase, participants rated how much they liked each fractal image and how nervous each image made them feel. These behavioral measures were used to assess the subjective experience of fear and its association with the neural responses observed in the MRI scans. The researchers specifically focused on brain regions known to be involved in fear processing, such as the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex.

The researchers used a within-participant design, meaning that each participant experienced both conditions of the experiment: one with a parent present and one without. In the “presence” condition, a parent stood next to the child, holding their hand or leg, providing a comforting physical presence. In the “absence” condition, the child was alone in the MRI room.

The order of these conditions was counterbalanced across participants to control for any effects related to the sequence in which the conditions were experienced. This method ensured that any observed differences in neural responses could be attributed to the presence or absence of the parent rather than the order in which the conditions were presented.

Behaviorally, the children reported feeling more nervous about the the conditioned stimulus compared to the safety cue after the conditioning phase, indicating that the conditioning procedure was effective in inducing a fear response.

The researchers found that the presence of a parent reduced activation in the centromedial amygdala in response to the unconditioned stimulus (the loud, unpleasant noise). The centromedial amygdala plays a crucial role in processing fear and generating physiological and emotional responses to threatening stimuli. This reduction in activation suggests that having a parent nearby helps buffer the child’s immediate, unlearned stress response, supporting the idea of parental presence serving as a social buffer.

Additionally, the researchers found a potential impact of parental presence on the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is involved in higher-order cognitive processes, including the regulation of emotions and fear learning.

When children were with their parents, there was a trend towards reduced activation in the mPFC in response to the conditioned threat cue compared to a safety cue. Although this finding did not survive multiple comparisons correction, it suggests that parental presence might modulate the neural processes involved in fear learning, potentially by reducing the cognitive and emotional load associated with processing threats.

“Parental presence is important for how youth’ brains process new threatening information,” Abramson told PsyPost. “Our paper showed that while children and adolescents learn about new threatening stimuli, the presence of a parent reduces activation in the amygdala- a region that reacts to emotionally salient events in the environment. If you incorporate this finding with previous studies, it suggests that by reducing youth’ stress response at the brain level, parents help their children face threatening events, explore them more extensively, and learn them better.”

Surprisingly, the effects did not significantly vary across the wide age range of 6 to 17 years. This suggests that the immediate stress-buffering role of parents might be consistently beneficial across childhood and adolescence.

“Based on previous studies, we expected the effect of parents to be stronger on younger children than on adolescents, whereas here we didn’t find any effect of the participants’ age,” Abramson noted. “On the other hand, our sample was quite small, and it could be that we did not find an age effect due to lack of statistical power.”

While this study provides valuable insights into how parental presence affects children’s neural responses during fear conditioning, there are some limitations to consider. For example, study may not have had sufficient power to detect more nuanced or smaller effects because of the relatively small sample size. A larger sample size would enable a more robust analysis and potentially reveal subtler patterns that this study could not detect.

“Future research should replicate our findings with more participants,” Abramson said. “This study showed the effect of parental presence on children’s fear learning at one specific moment. Our long-term goal is to understand how numerous momentary events like this, which happen all the time in families’ daily lives, aggregate to more stable parental influences on children’s emotional competence (e.g., development of emotion regulation abilities). From the other end, we want to understand how lack of caregiving stability and support contributes to development of emotional difficulties and psychopathologies like anxiety.”

The study, “The effects of parental presence on amygdala and mPFC activation during fear conditioning: An exploratory study,” was authored by Lior Abramson, Bridget L. Callaghan, Jennifer A. Silvers, Tricia Choy, Michelle VanTieghem, Anna Vannucci, Andrea Fields, and Nim Tottenham.

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