Kids First Guest Blog (July 11, 2005)

Motherlove, crime and addiction: lessons learned from lab rats

By Chella Turnbull ©

Crime in urban North America has taken on a new character lately. The elderly, the helpless, and charities are now the new targets. People in Vancouver were outraged when collection boxes for the victims of Southeast Asia’s recent tsunami were stolen. There is no honour among thieves anymore! Why? The answer is obvious. As the poor are battered, so will they batter those around them, regardless of the circumstances of their victims. Cruelty breeds cruelty. In raw survival mode, staying alive comes first — before tsunami survivors, before the elderly, or war vets or children. When a human is reduced to scrapping for his next meal, other people are reduced to inanimate objects that might lead to food. “Honour” has no meaning whatsoever in the face of sheer hopelessness.

It seems as if all bets are off, and it’s every man for himself. Most of us have very little sympathy for “street people”, especially when they have addiction problems. Panhandlers are a vivid reminder that things are terribly wrong with our society, so they often receive our anger. Harsh, moral judgment of the unfortunates among us is widespread: Why should we hand over our hard-earned cash to somebody who isn’t even trying? Well, too bad! They had the same opportunities as everybody else, but they’ve chosen to use drugs. They should just show some backbone, stop using, and get a job!

But recent, compelling scientific evidence proves that addiction is often not a choice. Dr. Wayne Brake, a University of California neurodevelopment professor and researcher, has found a positive co-relation between infant care and adult addiction. The care that a baby receives is an important determinant of that person’s vulnerability to addiction later on in life. The evidence is in – but the corporate media have completely ignored it.

In a study published in 2004 by the prestigious European Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Brake separated newborn baby rats from their mothers for three hours a day, over two weeks. Dr. Brake found that as adults, each and every one of these maternally-separated rats were more readily addicted than usual to cocaine and methamphetamine. (Rats were used in the study because their brains are very comparable to that of humans.) The rats routinely separated from their mothers as newborns were found to be more chemically sensitive to low doses of stimulant drugs than other rats, due to permanent changes in the brain’s dopamine system. Dopamine is the naturally-occurring chemical that controls the brain’s pleasure centres.

There were permanent chemical and structural changes to the brains of the rats who received only intermittent maternal care as infants. The implications of this study are enormous, challenging dearly-held beliefs that babies are just fine on their own and should be taught how to “self-comfort” all by themselves, no matter how upset they are. Clearly, in light of this neurological evidence, it is wrong to force babies to comfort themselves, and it is wrong to deprive infants of loving care by dumping them off with strangers at a tender age.

Dr. Brake, who has no children himself, was surprised to learn that parents are still often advised to let their babies cry alone to the point of exhaustion, for “sleep training” purposes. He wrote in an email: “I must admit that I was skeptical …So I did a little homework of my own, i.e. picked up a couple of so-called authoritative books on child rearing… and sure enough, the advice given (about letting babies cry) is nothing short of barbaric! The cold hard facts from solid research is quite the opposite of what they are preaching.” Allowing infants and young children to sleep in the parental bed is a neurologically sound practice, and there is not a shred of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Speaking from California by telephone last year, Dr. Brake said that whenever babies are deprived of comfort or placed in a chaotic environment, the resulting stress causes the release of cortisol and other hormones, altering metabolism. This affects the growth and development of the baby’s brain. “Research suggests that infants who are left alone to cry in the crib have poorer overall health outcomes than babies who are consistently picked up,” Brake told me.

The brain’s cortex goes through a critical period of growth during the first two years. How a young child is treated permanently sets the stress-coping ability for life. Brake described a highly successful California program called “The First Five”, which directly supports the mothers of babies and pre-schoolers. “Providing effective in-home support for disadvantaged mothers of young children proved to be much more beneficial than trying to help kids who are already within the school system,” he told me.

And there’s more research along these lines. At the U.S. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, monkeys separated from their mothers after birth and raised in an environment only of peers, i.e. other young monkeys, were found to have decreased seratonin levels in the brain. As adults, these peer-raised monkeys were more prone to aggressive behaviour and alcoholism than mother-raised monkeys. (Seratonin is the “feel good” brain chemical.) Low seratonin levels in human babies has recently been linked to SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, and decreased seratonin is also associated with clinical depression in humans.

Evidently, addiction and mental illness can be prevented altogether, by promoting the consistent, loving care of babies and young children. Greater support and education for new parents is a must. Families in need should receive “child care” money directly, so they can choose whether or not to have a parent stay home for a child’s early years, enhancing maternal-infant contact. All parents should think twice before routinely leaving a vulnerable infant with a non-attached person, or leaving it to cry alone in the crib for prolonged periods for “training” purposes. These practices cause permanent changes to the brain’s dopamine and seratonin systems, rendering the person more susceptible to addiction, alcoholism and depression in adulthood. Most parents instinctively know this to be true, but they’ve simply had their parenting instincts smothered over with poor advice.

The next time you see a broken soul asking for change, try showing kindness. It’s likely they suffered significant childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect, resulting in permanent neurological damage. Adult victims of childhood abuse deserve the same compassion an caring as the physically disabled. They need to have their basic daily needs met without judgment – they need help, support and caring, just as any other trauma victim does.

Ultimately, mental illness, addiction and panhandling must be eliminated at its source, in early childhood. Until it is commonly understood that every single child born deserves unlimited love and comfort during the first few years, we will never be able to tackle our society’s most serious problems. Bandaid solutions are not the ultimate answer. Proper, loving care of our offspring is the answer.

Chella Turnbull ©